“But People Aren’t Logical Robots, We Need To Shock Them, and They’ll Call Us Uncivil Even If We Are Civil”

I have been arguing, on both ethical and strategic grounds, that we should not use insults or other forms of personal attacks against people in arguments. I do think we can level harsh, specific moral criticisms, but that we should do so only after first focusing on specific words or behaviors and giving people chances to correct themselves, and then accumulate significant evidence that they really are ill-intentioned or incorrigibly negligent about examining or correcting their behavior. With the help of others, I recently codified these and many other notions of how to treat others in debates about tense subjects in a “civility pledge”.

Below are responses to three defenses of emotionally assaulting and insulting people that I often hear:

Objection 9: Sometimes you need to hurt people’s feelings in order to shock them into paying attention.

Reply 9: Ideas which fundamentally challenge people’s most cherished and/or culturally normalized assumptions are inherently shocking and upsetting to them. People will reflexively mistrust you when you go after their fundamental beliefs, assumptions, values, and identity. This alone marks you off in their mind as a threat, a fool, or both–regardless of whether you personally attack them. We need not personally attack people to make an impression, we need merely disagree with facts, forthrightness, and philosophical rigor.

Objection 10: Since they are going to get defensive and charge you with incivility anyway, even when it’s not justified, there is no point in being nice to them.

Reply 10: When you start to make people think and feel things that they don’t want to think and feel, they will experience an extremely unpleasant cognitive dissonance. How they interpret that unpleasantness is variable. They will not want to think they are experiencing cognitive dissonance. Automatically many people will instead cast about for any other explanation for their irritation. One of the first hypotheses for why they are so uncomfortable will be that you are just an obnoxious person. In their mind usually that’s going to be a far more preferable, convenient, and satisfying explanation. It’s going to let them off the hook without doing any difficult thinking and feeling. They’re going to run with it if they can convincingly get away with it. “It’s your fault they’re uncomfortable. And it’s not because of your arguments, but because you are a rude person.” Now they can leave the conversation feeling good about themselves and thinking about how bad you are.

So this is what many many people are inclined to do, automatically, when challenged to change their minds. Brains do this. Even very rational people’s brains do this. (If you don’t like my views, your own brain may even be doing this right now as you read me!) We have no choice but to work with this reality the best we can.

So given that people have this regular tendency, when you actually behave in a way that tries to emotionally push your interlocutors around, rather than reason with them, you only confirm their preferred hypothesis: that you are an obnoxious person. This validates the narrative they want. It immediately encourages them that they are right to attribute their discomfort not to your reasoning but to your personal behavior as the best explanation. You make this dodge really easy  for them. You validate their feelings that they are under personal attack. And you give them a true, ethical reason not to like you and instead to denounce you (even if you are also right on the facts they’re ignoring).

But if you were to stick scrupulously to arguing with reasons, fairness, and charitability, then you would be able to stop them when they try to personalize things. You can point to all the evidence of your fairness and insist that they focus on the arguments that are making them uncomfortable rather than shoot the messenger. You can explicitly show empathy for their frustration and affirm that you mean them no ill will, that you wish you didn’t have to have such a difficult disagreement with them, but you do because it’s a matter of the true or the good.

Whereas if you just personally attack them, you lose the ability to say that they are only making accusations against you in order to avoid your arguments. You give them something true to change the focus with and to personally accuse you with. Being philosophically or politically right is not a moral justification for cruelty. They will have a morally valid complaint against you. Even if you would rather stay focused on the facts of the matter, you have given them a valid, different point of contention to change the subject to. If you want them to stay focused on the facts and not change things to the subject of your tone, then don’t go and make yourself an issue in the first place with personal attacks or abuse. When you make things personally confrontational, your personal behavior becomes a legitimate topic to raise.

Many people hostile to atheism want to accuse us of just being meanspirited and condescending know-it-alls who call less educated people “stupid”. So why actually call them stupid or treat them in other belittling, elitist ways? This totally undermines our claims that we are only trying to get them to look at our arguments because we sincerely believe them to be true.

The worst of this is that we can also risk falsely confirming in our opponents their prejudices and false perceptions. Many people hostile to feminism falsely think that it is a form of female supremacism. So if, specifically, you use a gendered insult against such a man who is resistant to feminism (or if you make negative generalizations about men too loosely without specifying that you mean only men who engage in some specific bad behavior, etc.) he will interpret this as “Exhibit A” that feminism isn’t really about equality and overcoming sexism, but rather about replacing one form of sexism with another.

Why do superfluous things like that when they are unnecessary to proving your points and when he and others will immediately interpret, within their existing prejudices, as prime evidence of your “true” sexism, and your supposed sexist supremacist political and social goals? Why, if you are a woman, would you angrily berate him with insults (if you can at all help it) if you know that he is in all likelihood going to unfairly take this as evidence that women are too emotional to reason with and dismiss you? There are important ways women need to be able to say to men that they do not understand certain issues because their privilege obscures their having experiential access. It only undercuts women’s abilities to make those important charges when they mix in gratuitous potshots like gendered insults. This makes it easier for anti-feminists get away with calling all arguments that have any gendered dimension sexist, even though in some cases one’s gender does matter to one’s ability to speak with credibility on what something is like.

I know many critics will say that even if you are civil in the utmost, people will still accuse you of incivility, particularly if you are a member of a marginalized group. All I can say is not all will do so. You can force them to focus on the substance and to see that you have been above reproach, if you really have. People do catch on to that kind of thing. And if your direct interlocutor does not, others watching will, at least. And there is no other strategy available anyway because actually becoming uncivil will certainly not make them stop thinking you’re a bad person who can be ignored on account of your having unconfessed supremacist designs of some sort (regardless of your words to the contrary).

I am not blaming people, especially marginalized people, who give angry torrents of insults in self-defense in response to serious goading. In my discussion of my approach to moderation I explicitly say that when marginalized people are personally antagonized into lashing out I will reprimand those doing the goading, even as I will request the thread return to issues of the true and the good, rather than escalate personal attacks. I understand the impulse to defend oneself and that sometimes people feel their dignity requires it.

But as a matter of our explicit ethics and explicit strategy, we should not aim at being interpersonally hostile as a goal or a strategy. The more that we can commit to constraining ourselves and our justified emotional responses within the formal limits of civility, the less ammunition we will give our opponents and the less we will risk becoming abusive people.

Objection 11: People are not logical robots, you need to appeal to them emotionally to get through to them.

Reply 11: There are abusive and non-abusive ways to argue passionately and to appeal to people’s emotions. Just because some uses of emotion are appropriate does not mean that name-calling, personal attacks, bullying, belittling, subtly goading, or any other abusive behavior is acceptable. Just as in the rest of life, emotions are a good thing but not every use of them is either strategically wise or morally acceptable.

In a debate context, verbally assaulting and personally attacking people makes them more likely to shut down to our ideas. Appealing to our common ground with our interlocutors and affirming them emotionally in small, truthful ways sends the message that you’re not their enemy. This quite often will open them up as much as will be possible.

Thinking about the emotional comfortability of our philosophical/political opponents is not inherently any sort of capitulation to them as superior to us, though it seems that some who have in the past been forced to defer to others in unjustifiable ways reflexively fear this. It can rather be simply an affirmation of their basic human equality with us and can actually usually be the best avenue for actually reaching them where their brain and heart presently are. Thinking about making them feel good is the best strategy for making them feel good about us and about what we have to say. People like people who make them feel good. Most people, most of the time are more concerned with how they feel than what anyone else is actually saying. Stopping to think about what will make others actually feel good, and in turn receptive to us, goes contrary to our first inclination, which is to concentrate on making ourselves feel good. Counter-productively making ourselves feel good in the short term can sometimes be a cathartic venting that costs us more hateful opposition in the long term.

Using social skill to win their intellectual cooperation, their moral capitulation, and their personal admiration, without sacrificing our commitment to the true and the good, is a far greater satisfaction than simply telling someone off while effectively alienating them in the process. Having experienced both things, I can say there is just no contest as to which is greater.

There are many more objections to deal with, especially as many blogs have been so good as to provide criticisms of the civility pledge that I would like to deal with in the coming days. For now I hope this suffices to forward the discussion. In the meantime, for more objections to my position, with links to my key replies to them, see this post. For my summary of justifications, strategies, and ethical ideals for civil discourse, see “The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge.”

Your Thoughts?

Discover More Women Philosophers at Philosop-her
Alix Jules On Being An African American Humanist
A Map With A Few of My Paths to Objective Morality
A Moral Philosopher on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson
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.

  • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com Shira

    I agree with all three of your responses. It will be interesting to see how this comment stream develops!

    I would also like to say that it seems to me that incivility is incompatible with listening to one’s partner in an argument. My own rule of thumb is that if I conclude someone is not worth listening to, they are also not worth speaking to. In that case, I should wish them well, cleanse my emotions, and get on with other things. But if I wish to speak, I also need to listen, and that means I need to set aside my own reactions — even of anger, disgust, and self-righteousness — to hear the human concerns behind the vile ideas. At that point, a conversation is possible.

  • http://starkreal.blogspot.com/ Todd

    In reading the related posts and comments on this topic, I think I’m seeing a recurring theme. I perceive that the argument here is centered on opposition in principle to the deliberate use of invective to get people’s attention and manipulate them emotionally in a rather crude way, and centered on opposition in principle to psychological arguments in support of that practice.

    It is not, as far as I can tell, a position taken against the value of emotion in reasoning or the use of deliberately evocative stories to make a point, it is not against constructive criticism or even embarrassing people for bad behavior or being direct or even against knowingly making people feel stupid for supporting inane arguments. It is against the deliberate use of name calling and extremes of ad hominem arguments on the putative principle that people need to be manipulated emotionally in order to be able to think together beneficially because they can’t be expected to have the capacity to reason together. There is a lot of grey there, since there is a lot of room for what “extremes” are and what the emotional significance of particular names might be and to whom. However there is I think a reasonable principle to defend.

    Dan, are we on the same track here, or am I just reading my own thoughts into your argument?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      That’s mostly it. Though, I would add I’m squeamish about taking recourse to embarrassing people except as a last resort or in order to stop a powerful person from doing harm. I would also add that it’s more than just name calling and ad hominems that I want to reject, I want to positively encourage a constructive approach to one another. This is important. A lot of hostile rejections of my views say I’m only calling for the end to overtly nasty incivility and leaving room for all sorts of politely worded nastiness. What I’m actually calling for is an entire ethos of charitableness towards one another.

    • http://starkreal.blogspot.com/ Todd

      Dan says:

      I want to positively encourage a constructive approach to one another. This is important. A lot of hostile rejections of my views say I’m only calling for the end to overtly nasty incivility and leaving room for all sorts of politely worded nastiness. What I’m actually calling for is an entire ethos of charitableness towards one another.

      I agree completely with the spirit of this. Aside from personal preference, I feel the best support of this is that some deliberate form of charity is one of very few effective general ways to compensate for unavoidable differences in perspective, differences in expertise, differences in experience, and so on, and encourage new learning and approaches to things without falling into our own confirmatory biases.

      I also understand how difficult this is to accomplish in a broad forum, while becoming significantly more practical and achievable in smaller more focused communities. What I don’t really feel I understand at all is the potential for making this happen in a larger community. I find it challenging with 8 people who have roughly similar background and objectives. I’m finding it curiously optimistic that we can expect hundreds or thousands or millions of people to extend the same sorts of charity to each other’s contributions in order to think together. It’s a great vision though I think, akin to what I like to think of as the ideal of a “problem solving culture.”

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      I look at this way, the atheist movement has long claimed it’s not simply about one proposition (“there is insufficient evidence for believing in gods”) but about promoting critical thinking in the culture in general. My assumption has been that I’m working within a community already committed to the principle that critical reasoning is the solution to problems and I am asking for an explicit ethics of communication for doing that within the community–the community that, again, claims to be committed first and foremost to critical reason as good for its own sake and as the likeliest route to freedom and flourishing.

      What I am discovering is the community may not really believe that at all and may not be as willing to commit to the tools of critical reasoning as it is towards other (highly valuable) goals.

    • http://starkreal.blogspot.com/ Todd

      “I look at this way, the atheist movement has long claimed it’s not simply about one proposition (“there is insufficient evidence for believing in gods”) but about promoting critical thinking in the culture in general. My assumption has been that I’m working within a community already committed to the principle that critical reasoning is the solution to problems and I am asking for an explicit ethics of communication for doing that within the community–the community that, again, claims to be committed first and foremost to critical reason as good for its own sake and as the likeliest route to freedom and flourishing. What I am discovering is the community may not really believe that at all and may not be as willing to commit to the tools of critical reasoning as it is towards other (highly valuable) goals.”

      Or possibly they may mostly share a commitment to “critical thinking” in a broad sense while still having very different ways of thinking about how reasoning works and what constitutes the priorities and values required for it. For example people differ on the role of social interaction in various kinds of inquiry and on the role of tacit knowledge vs. formal knowledge. They differ on the role of rules and heuristics in thinking vs. expertise. They differ on the specific role of hot cognition vs. cold cognition in decision making of various kinds. They differ on the role they assume conscious vs. unconscious processes play in decision making and reasoning.

      Some of these issues have empirical questions associated that could be resolved through rational inquiry in principle, but people interpret even the empirical questions in different ways because of their dispositions and preferences and the framework they start with. I’ve seen people argue from social psychology data for example that we need to find ways to shame people into accepting ideas that are rational. At the same time I’ve seen people argue from the same data that shaming people prevents them from reasoning, and so it contrary to our objectives. The use of the same data shifts depending on the assumptions we make about the role of reasoning in larger culture, the specifics of our (sometimes unstated) objectives, and the nature of reasoning.

  • Poppy

    For the most part, I agree with your ideas, Mr. Fincke. I am at a loss however, to politely deal with another scenario: how to get someone to stop talking long enough to even notice that you have something to say.

    I’ve had conversations so one-sided that the other person won’t let you get a word in edge-wise. One fellow I know does not apparently need to breathe as he rambles at breakneck speeds. He is so in love with his own voice that he doesn’t even realize a conversation should involve two people. The only thing that has ever worked is a rude “will you the f*ck shut up?!”. I have yet to find polite way to deal with this kind of thing.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Ha, yes, that’s upsetting. If you can’t walk away and want to engage, my first advice would be to ask him hard, brief questions. If he wants to feel like the expert in the room, force him to prove his expertise. Let him wander into his own troubles as he tries.

  • Cylon

    I would be interested in hearing your response to another argument I have heard, Dan. Namely, that in some cases using insults against someone is not intended to change their opinion at all. Rather, it’s intended to signal other people who may be observing that certain behavior is not accepted and those participating in the behavior will be socially shamed. I agree with you that insults are more likely to harden someone’s opinion against you than to change your mind. But in some circumstances, like if a person has already made it clear that they are not open to changing their opinion under any circumstances, and their opinion is homophobic or racist or what have you. In such a case I can see an argument that it is more effective from a social standpoint to use insults to make it clear that such a stance won’t be tolerated than it is to simply disengage. And while it is also possible to use precise descriptors to signal the same thing, I’m not yet convinced that they pack the same emotional punch. It also depends on the audience.

    In summary, I think that one of the roots of some disagreement with your pledge is not with the methods of the pledge itself, but about differing goals. Your pledge is has the goal of maximizing the effectiveness of communication with those we’re debating, but that is not the only possible goal of communication. Maximizing the message to onlookers may require different methods, as may protecting oneself emotionally.

    You may even have addressed some of this in the pledge itself, but it’s so. damn. long. and I really don’t have time at the moment to go back through the whole thing. So apologies if I missed something you already said.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Yes, this is a major, distinct issue that I’m going to treat soon. Suffice to say for now, the pledge argues you can blame people who have revealed themselves to have serious character flaws. I just think that this can happen with charges of specifiable moral failings and without recourse to mere abusive epithets.

      For example, I think a particular filmmaker is immoral in his tactics. So one day on Facebook I remarked that I thought he was a propagandist. I could have just expressed my dislike by saying “asshole”. But by saying “propagandist”, this opened up a discussion from a defender of his about what constitutes propaganda exactly. This allowed the charge against him to be a matter open to evidence. A meaningful point could be made or refuted.

    • http://starkreal.blogspot.com/ Todd

      Cylon writes to Dan:

      Your pledge is has the goal of maximizing the effectiveness of communication with those we’re debating, but that is not the only possible goal of communication. Maximizing the message to onlookers may require different methods, as may protecting oneself emotionally.

      Yes, this is a very valuable observation in my opinion. One of the things that in my experience tends to derail efforts to think together effectively is that things like inquiry and advocacy start to intermingle, but I suspect they are in some ways incompatible. Advocacy goals do not prevent us from attempting rational inquiry by any means, and we probably need advocacy in addition to inquiry in order to build the critical mass of social support for ideas that makes them deployable and useful. But advocacy does tend to corrupt inquiry and we ignore this at our peril because it often happens in ways that are not at all obvious.

  • Brad

    @Poppy – give that guy really dry, salty food, and talk while he’s drinking. Or something.

  • Poppy

    Brad, could I hit him over the head with a pan of really salty food? ‘Cause, I swear, I would dearly love to some days. The man is a massive pustule on the hindquarters of existence.

    • baal

      I’ve been known to raise my hand and wave it slowly in their line of sight. They often stop and yell, “what!” at me at that point but I at least get an opening to say that I’d like a turn or that I need to say something now or I’ll forget what I’m doing.” If they don’t let me have a go, I walk off. It’s worked well for me.

  • Gordon

    One of the things that shook me was seeing a work-friend’s shock that I believed something so silly. In fact I read something that could almost have been the same experience here on Camels with Hammers in the post about End Times and UN Black Helicopters.

  • http://SkeptimusPrime.com Dylan Walker

    One thing stands out to me on point 2.
    That is the question of how do we really know. When someone accuses us of being uncivil despite our attempts to be civil. As you said people sometimes lash out when you ask them to consider something uncomfortable. We are open to possibly doing the same thing. It’s easy to dismiss our opponents as just lashing out by accusing us of being uncivil but they may in fact really believe it, how can we know for certain?

    Just the other day I got into a discussion with a theist and he asked me what evidence would convince me there was a god. As part of the exchange let him know that even were I given absolute proof the god of the bible was real I would not be able to bring myself to worship him. He then accused me of being illogical because I said I would refused to believe in god even if I were offered proof he existed. I corrected him and said I never said any such thing, and tried to explain what I thought was an obvious difference between belief and worship but he kept insisting on his original interpretation. Eventually he called me a liar and I got angry, accused him of being a troll and blocked him. I probably shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t understand how someone could so badly misrepresent my statements, he had to be doing it intentionally I thought.

    A few days later I was mulling over the conversation and it hit me, the guys christian upbringing had so thoroughly indoctrinated this guy that he could honestly not understand how someone could actually believe in god but not worship him. To him the second action so seamlessly followed from the first that no sane person would do the first and not the second. So in his mind my claim was logically indistinct from saying I would not believe. He wouldn’t apologize for misrepresenting me because no matter how much we talked he couldn’t understand how he had.

    My point is that sometimes no matter how clear and logical we are being sometimes it seems impossible to get a point across, the other guy will simply think you are crazy, dishonest, or a jerk because they honestly do no understand the point you are making, and it will never be possible to prove for certain that they are wrong.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      This is the post I wrote about my brief brief stint fearing black helicopters.

  • Jubal DiGriz

    I think there is a critical component to conversation that you’re missing here, Dan. While I agree with almost all the points you’ve made on this topic here and in previous posts (except I think you take able-privilaged dimension unreasonably far, but that’s a different discussion).

    There are good ethical and strategic reasons to insult someone, and those occur because rarely is a conversation only between two people. For instance, I had the misfortune of having to work with an individual in a community group who had goals antithetical to those of everyone else. To keep a long story short she managed through manipulation of the group charter and generating ill-will between members to dissolve the group, which had been functioning well for about a year.

    At the final meeting, after it was decided that the the group end and the meeting was adjourned but everyone was still present, I spoke to this woman publicly and insulted her in a couple of different ways. I did not use words like “bitch” or “moron”, but did say things like “back-stabbing”, “paranoid”, and “liar”.

    When I did so I was really speaking past her… I had no expectation anything I could say could influence her behavior or even be able to explain what I thought she had done wrong. Instead I was speaking to other members of the group, who had become extremely frustrated with her and organizing in general. I attempted to make it clear that I thought the problem wasn’t the group or its goals, but this woman in particular.

    If I had not said these things to her face, it would amount to gossip, which was part of the problem. I felt it fair that I give her a chance to respond to my honest opinions about her. But most importantly I felt there needed to be an open acknowledgment of what this woman had done, so that everyone else could move forward.

    What I did was undeniable rude, and possibly hurtful to this woman (although I honestly have no idea if she even understood what I was saying). But the ethical imperative was not to respect the feelings of this exceptionally selfish individual, but to try to help everyone else come to terms with what had occurred so they could move on and do other things.

    This was a very particular circumstance, and I imagine there are only a few cases in life where this principle (some intentional emotional harm for one vs. emotional strength for many) would apply. I’m doubtful that this could even work on a web forum, since the anonymity of the format prevent being able to gauge emotion and intention clearly. But I do think think this was a valid and ethical use of insults, and for that reasons it’s somewhat irresponsible to make a universal statement against this category of responses.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Two brief points: my civility pledge and all my other statement should make clear that it is okay to level harsh moral charges when they’re well substantiated. So if, as you say, you did not use words like “bitch” or “moron”, but did say things like “back-stabbing”, “paranoid”, and “liar”, then you were in keeping with the civility pledge. I never say to be polite to the point of excusing immorality that is harmful. I am arguing that in debates we should resort to personal attacks only when all the evidence points to a really rotten character and we should contain them to specific charges that evidence can be marshaled for.

      I also understand the importance of speaking to the others listening and not just the person you’re talking to. Absolutely. My question is what are you saying to them? Are you saying you’re an abusive insulting person or someone who knows how to be morally stern and principled without being personally vicious?

    • Jubal DiGriz

      Very interesting. Thinking back you have briefly mentioned those circumstances. These nuances tend to slip from my mind when you’ve written so much much on this!

    • PhysicistDave

      Dan wrote:
      >I never say to be polite to the point of excusing immorality that is harmful.

      Well, Dan, largely because of my own experience with people at our Baptist church who were trying literally to “scare the Hell out of me” when I was a child, I find it grotesquely immoral to tell children that traditional, orthodox, fire-and-brimstone Christianity is true.

      So, do I get to be rude to anyone who is raising his kids in a traditional Christian environment?

      I realize that your (and my) answer is “No”, but the question is why we draw that distinction. I suppose that it is partly that we realize that these folks were raised in an environment that make it hard for them to see how wrong this is. And, to some degree, we are simply being pragmatic in that being rude to such people would be counter-productive given the society we live in.

      On the other hand, any parents in contemporary America who were subjecting their daughters to foot-binding would not have those excuses, and, I think, it would make sense to harshly condemn them.

      But, again, the whole issue seems to me very hard to sum up in simple terms.

      Dave Miller in Sacramento

  • PhysicistDave


    I have posted a handful of comments about specific aspects of your pledge idea, but I probably owe you a general explanation of why I think your proposal, or any similar proposal, just cannot work, despite the best of intentions:

    As you know I have a Ph.D. in physics from a highly ranked university (Stanford). I do not think that when I post something about physics that my degree means that anyone should accept what I say as Gospel. It is perfectly reasonable for them to ask questions such as:

    Do most physicists agree with you on this?
    Why do physicists think this is true?
    Could you suggest some standard reference where we can check this out and see if you are being honest and accurate?

    However, I do think I am owed the provisional courtesy, given my Ph.D. of other people’s granting that there is a decent chance that what I am reporting about physics does represent the views of most physicists. I.e., I think I am justified at being angry at people who, not having studied physics at all themselves, deride me as a fool who has no knowledge of physics. And, given the enormous success physics has had in churning out very complex devices that actually work – useful devices such as cell phones as well as terrifying devices such as nuclear bombs – I think we physicists in general are owed the provisional courtesy of non-scientists’ granting us that we do seem to have discovered some powerful, non-obvious knowledge about the physical world.

    I imagine you more or less agree with those points, hedged with “provisional” of course, although I assure you that a very significant fraction of the people I have run across on the Web (including many at Pharyngula!) most certainly do not agree.

    Now here is the problem: many Christians believe they are entitled to a similar degree of deference concerning their beliefs.

    Numerous times I have been told that I live in a majority Christian country (true) and that it is therefore a serious faux pas for me to state at all that I am not a Christian, much less to explain in detail, no matter how politely, why I think Christianity is seriously wrong. People telling me this, again and again, range from random posters on the Web to close family members.

    Or, again and again, I have been told that since some Christians are generously willing to educate me in the Truth revealed to them, it is a faux pas if I state that I think their Truth is false, and that it is also a faux pas for me to raise any serious challenging questions, aside from those questions sincerely aimed at helping me better understand and accept Christianity.

    Or I have been informed that we atheists should be extremely grateful that we are tolerated at all by normal humans and should have the decency not to publicly mention our perverted perspective.

    Large numbers of our fellow citizens, at least tens of millions, if you credit opinion polls (and my personal experience in different regions of the country is consistent with those polls), really think this way.

    Of course, you and I disagree with their perspective. But, the problem is that the arguments that we can offer to change their perspective seem, to them, to be based on our deeply perverted way of thinking. And, so, we are not going to change their attitude as to how they should behave towards us, at least not by reasoned argument.

    The problem is that you need a “neutral” point of consideration, that would warrant respect from both Christians and atheists, to show that the attitudes I have seen from many Christians and that I mentioned above are wrong. Unfortunately, the nature of closed systems of thought, such as traditional Christianity, is to reject any such neutral ground.

    I’m not suggesting that social change cannot come: social change does come – look at the civil rights movement and the gay rights movements. But, I lived through both of those movements, and, alas, rational argument played a very small part in those social changes.

    And, of course, I myself do think I have a perfectly rational way of presenting a “neutral” basis point from which to evaluate science, Christianity, atheism, etc.: Go back to the beginning, to when you were an infant just learning to use your senses. Think about what you learned then, how you learned more advanced ideas such as God, morality, and so on, and critically look at the process and see if belief in those ideas was really justified or if you just accepted them because they were imposed by powerful adults on you, a powerless child.

    Some ideas, such as the idea of “object permanence” so often studied by infant psychologists, were well justified; some ideas such as Santa and God were not. The idea of objective morality? Not so obvious whether or not it was justified.

    But, as you know better than I, my “neutral” starting point is hotly debated even among non-religious philosophers and adamantly rejected by such Christian philosophers as Plantinga.

    And, those Christians who actually do read books have learned to deride my “neutral” starting point as a biased result of my “naturalist/materialist/empiricist worldview.” Believe me, it does absolutely no good to tell them that in fact I am convinced that materialism is false, and that I am only a “naturalist” or “empiricist” if those terms are highly qualified, and then only provisionally.

    So, I think that minimal courtesy towards me requires Christians to admit that we scientists know a fair amount about reality and that, given my education, there is a reasonable chance that what I say about physics is largely correct.

    And, many Christians – as far as I can see, the majority of Christians who wish to discuss religion on the Web – think that minimal courtesy from us towards them requires a presumption that Christianity is true, that open criticism of Christianity is a social faux pas, and that we owe them gratitude and deference for trying to pull us away from our bizarrely and obviously perverse ways.

    Both sides really believe in their perspectives. And these two competing perspectives make it effectively impossible to agree on what both sides would mean by “civility”: they both sincerely want “civility,” of course, but as they conceive it.

    I see no ground that both sides would accept as truly neutral that could give a mutual agreement on “civility” when discussing the topic of religion.

    All the best,


  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com Steve Cornell
    • smrnda

      I read your post, but let me ask you something – in some nations, Muslim ones for example, the ‘will of the people’ is that apostates should be killed, and that other religions should be relegated to second class status or even outright banned. How do you reconcile your belief that the will of the people should be respected when you can obviously end up in a tyranny of the majority situation where the majority is completely uninterested with the rights of minorities? In situations like this, do the minority groups owe respect to the people who want to oppress them or relegate them to second-class status? Should they agree that an equal and respectful dialog has taken place (it hasn’t) and just accept ‘well, we can’t all agree on the laws.’ ?