How I’d Answer The Charge That Atheists Call Believers Stupid Too Often

I was honored to be invited to be on Russia Today’s show CrossTalk to talk about atheism today, but it turned out they did not have room for me after all this time. The producer I was in contact with expressed strong interest in having me on in the future, which would be exciting.

In the meantime, in order to feel out my basic positions on atheism she had sent me several questions, which I answered. I figured I would turn them into a few posts. Here, developed beyond what I sent her, is my outline for answering the question atheists often face about whether we are especially dismissive of religious believers’ intelligence:

Agree or disagree with following: Many atheists call churchgoers “morons” or “brainless,” displaying the same hubristic arrogance they despise when it comes from the other side.

As an educator and an atheist, I adamantly oppose calling any one “morons” or “brainless” or “stupid” as doing this signals to people that there are punishments for being shown to have mistaken beliefs or for making reasoning errors. This gives them incentives to avoid educational contexts in which they might be shown wrong or feel less knowledgeable. It gives their self-protective pride more motivation to avoid risking being embarrassed by admitting they are wrong when they do come across unsettling information or people who seem to know more than they do. It is an enticement to self-deception, information avoidance, and resentment of intellectual competitors or perceived “superiors”.

Those atheists who identify as being part of the atheist movement are usually quite adamant about being proponents of critical thinking. Calling people abusive names for being wrong discourages them all the more from facing up to the fact that they may be making intellectual wrong turns. It makes being intellectually corrected a painful, demoralizing experience that makes people resent those who challenge them as enemies, rather than an empowering and exciting one which makes them grateful to those who open their eyes or who could be mutually correcting, intellectual collaborators. It is counter-productive to what we are supposed to stand for.

It is also beneath atheists to call people these things because such charges against religious people are plainly false. People are not religious because they’re brainless but because they have brains bequeathed to them by evolution that lead them regularly to cognitive errors to which all humans are susceptible. Then religious institutions actively exploit and cultivate those tendencies towards cognitive error to powerfully persuade people. For example, they actively teach people bad methods of inference. They encourage confirmation bias and overactive agency detection when they train people to see everything that happens as “God’s work in their lives”. They teach people to see doubt as sinful or as only ever good as a dialectical stage towards reaffirming one’s beliefs by faith after all. “Faith” is outright hostility to the kinds of genuine doubt that could improve their most fundamental and important beliefs about themselves, about the good, and their place in the universe. They are actively and deliberately conditioned to see changing beliefs as a threat to their very identities–usually with their religion’s active cultivation of this fear.

It requires a lot of education (which most people never receive) and an ability to overcome all sorts of deeply powerful identity issues for most people to see exactly what is so false and counter-productive in their religious beliefs, values, and practices. The religiosity of regions tend to wane as material wealth and access to education increase. People cannot be blamed for not having the requisite access to information, leisure time or money to educate themselves, or rigorous teachers of philosophy and science to guide them in correcting natural erring habits of the mind.

While frustrated atheists sometimes falsely and counter-productively call those they disagree with stupid, they are probably not much guiltier of this than any others, including religious people themselves, when they get irritated during arguments about ideas or simply express how frustratingly wrong they find those they disagree with to be. I regularly see conservatives call liberals “libtards” and liberals call conservatives “republitards”, in addition to all sorts of equally terrible names.

So why do atheists get accused of being especially prone towards calling believers stupid? Quite often atheists refrain entirely from calling anyone stupid and nonetheless get accused of doing so just because they argued that believers’ views were both false and distinctly illogical in character. In these cases, believers find it easier to feel offended at being made uncomfortable by having the absurdity of what they think made explicit than to actual face up to the shortcomings of their thinking. In particular this is exacerbated over the cases of other kinds of beliefs because unlike, say, contestable political beliefs or other kinds of philosophical views, typically it is only with religious beliefs that people are defending things they admit themselves they do not have adequate evidence for and which do not make complete sense.

It’s as though their awareness of the intellectual limits of what they’re defending makes them especially sensitive and defensive when forced to give account. And since atheists are not just challenging poor inferences and poor beliefs but believers’ basic mechanisms for belief formation themselves, our challenges inherently target the believers’ whole approaches to thinking more directly. Feeling vulnerable at having their basic methods of reasoning and habits of inference challenged, they can defensively sense a charge that they are incapable altogether of good thinking. And since they are at that precise moment defending the beliefs they know are their most slippery and least strictly logical, they might have some fear such charges are true and want to change the subject to how mean we are to go after them so personally.

We outspoken atheists often try to highlight the outright silliness and absurdity of religious beliefs not because we think believers are stupid but because we think (with good reason) that they are much smarter than their professed beliefs and would be able to see through their errors if only their preposterousness were made clear enough. Often it is the atheists who do not bother to challenge religious people’s beliefs who show them the most contempt because they write them off as incapable of knowing any better. I suspect that those non-believers who find questioning religious beliefs unseemly and so blame other atheists for doing it are projecting into our words their own sense that religious beliefs are “stupid” and believers less intelligent. I think they are seeing us effectively as exposing “stupidity” inherently by calling out absurd beliefs and feel embarrassed for those therein exposed as “stupid”. So they accuse us of actually calling such people “stupid” when we have actually done nothing of the kind. It might be their own implicit, unexamined, prejudices against religious people that make them think religious believers are so vulnerable and intellectually defenseless that merely highlighting their errors and the plain absurdity of their beliefs is tantamount to cruelly making fun of the mentally disabled for mistakes that they neurologically cannot avoid and can never correct.

I think it is we atheists who treat the religious with the dignity of honestly assessing their beliefs and telling them what we really think of them are the ones respecting believers as rational equals who are smarter than their unexamined beliefs and prejudices. And I have had religious believers who have thanked me for my sincerity and straightforwardness towards them where other non-believers might condescend to them.

And I would charge that no one shows more contempt for the average believer than some of their clergy who engage in astounding abuses while presenting themselves as “holy men”, or the philosophically sophisticated theologians who do not literally believe a fraction of what they condescendingly allow the superstitious person in the pew to go on believing.

Sometimes people might think atheists are calling believers stupid when we charge them with being “against reason” or call them “irrationalists”. We do not do this because we think believers are incapable of reasoning but rather because regularly when faced with inconsistency and implausibility in their beliefs, religious people will deny the authority of reason and praise disregarding evidence by calling it “faith”. They are in this way not brainless but willfully committed to being irrational. We call them out for that. Yes, it is a personal charge about their basic intellectual habits and methods, but it is a charge that they are committing remediable faults and it is a charge that is aimed at specific habits and methods they actually both display and defend. These are not charges that they are incapable of learning and improving. These are charges that their views on proper reasoning are intellectually and morally wrong and capable of revision. These are vital matters to argue with others about. It is not an abusively personal attack simply to raise them.

Your Thoughts?

For more, read In Defense of Dawkins’s Reason Rally Speech“Who Are You Calling Stupid?” and .

For constructive advice for debating believers read 13 Strategies for Arguing with Religious Moderates and my top ten tips for reaching out to religious believers.

 

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.

  • Mary Wood

    My thoughts – needs proofreading, but spot on. I have long viewed theists not with contempt but pity and sadness, fellow sufferers of Stockholm Syndrome. But I have no idea how to say that without, well, sounding like I’m calling them pitiful and victims.

    I think you’ve just given me some new phraseology!

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

      needs proofreading

      It’s an occupational hazard of blogging; my apologies.

    • Criamon

      A phrase I’ve heard Boghossian use (that he may well have coined) is “epistemic victims”.

  • http://SkeptimusPrime.com Dylan Walker

    I agree 100% with this. I tried to think of something intelligent to add in addition to that but I have nothing.

  • Shannon

    Well written. I strongly agree. The point about the degree of contempt which is inherent in the apologist’s view of the “simple” believer is a good one, and one I’d like to see developed.

  • estraven

    How do you feel about “willful ignorance”? As a former college instructor, I’m pretty familiar with willful ignorance. I don’t call people stupid, but I do find mental laziness and refusal to grapple with ideas pretty common.

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

      Yes, willful ignorance is a problem. That’s what we should call it though, not “stupidity”. I talked essentially about blameworthy believing by religious people in this post.

  • Laurent Weppe

    See, the problem is, you start by “As an educator” as in calling someone stupid was merely a pedagogic blunder

    The problem is that such an expression Is not meant to convince or to educate, but to enforce obedience. What you’re saying is not that different than “As a teacher, I am most certainly opposed to the use of beating stick as a teaching apparatus, as it give troublesome pupils incentive to not listen to the teacher the next day” while you should say, “As a human being, I know that beating students is meant to allow sadistic teachers to get off and teach the kids nothing except that might makes right, which means I won’t be surprised if a non-negligible number of proponant of physical punishment end up beaten to a pulp by some “nameless thug” 15 years from now when the some of their defensless vixtims will have grown stronger than them

    When you call someone stupid, you state that you considere this person worth to be inherently lower than yours. It is way worrse that calling someone ignorant, or straight up accusing them of lyings: ignorance can be fixed, malice can be reformed, stupidity is a lifelong character flaw.

    Calling someone stupid means that the reason behind your worldview are beyond this person capacity to understand. It means that you’re not seeking acknowledgement but obedience: “I’m right, you’re not smart enough to understand why I am right so just do as you’re told“:.

    Once that point is taken into account, it’s not hard to see what’s wrong with this expression and its variations: if you see someone not as your equal but as a a talking draft animal, then, it’s easy to see the deeply threatening, vicious, implicit, meaning: “You’re stupid” means “I am vastly better than you, you should never be anything more than a lackey to me, and the only reason I am not openly beating you into submission right now is because society rules forbid me to do so, but I’ll use any trick not explicitly forbidden to break you and make sure you never try to raise above your deserved position

    You’re stupid” is nothing less than the declaration of a war.which can end only by the surrender and submission of one party. Either the person being called stupid capitulate and cravenly submit to her assaulter, or the insulter is the one to surrender and then has to spend the rest of his life displaying insincere courtesy toward a person he contemns.

    That’s one of the reasons I fucking Hate Hanlon’s Razor: it’s an artifice, a way to disguise contempt and an aristocratic worldview as high-minded commiseration: it’s the Grand Bourgeois version of the “hate the sin love the sinner” bullshit religious biggots use to justify their bullying. It’s supposed to be well meaning but in the end, it just makes peaceful coexistence harder.

    ***

    So why do atheists get accused of being especially prone towards calling believers stupid?

    Because atheists acting like arrogant pricks in broad daylight are a new thing in North America. The cliché of the college educated non-believers who are all looking down of people from their confortable ivory towers may be old, but until very recently, there was not much mediatic clout for people claiming that, say, every religious believer is either intellectually limited or a closeted atheist (Dawkins), that every smart people who ever lived had to be secretly an atheist (Jerry Coyne), that one should be exhilarated by 9/11 because it finaly gave the West an excuse to restart colonial wars in the Middle East (Hitchens), that western culture should embrace cultural determinism to survive (Harris), or that religion was a con invented by atheists to keep the idiotic rubes under control (Patton Oswalt: his sketch is hillarious until you realize that some people really believe that).

    Now, as I wrote in the past, as an European, I live in a region where religion is less ubiquitous, so authoritarians who happen to be atheists are less likely to dress their “Fuck the Rubes” worldview in religious drabs and much more likely to walk openly as atheists, which means atheists displaying an authoritarian streak and a hefty capacity for bad faith in non-negligible numbers and even among the intelligentsia is nothing new to me, and I’m even willing to give the benefit of the doubt to some who may just be affecting an “unapologetic” pose (although the “I said fuck the mother fucking pope in public! I’m such a badass” attitude is as far as I’m concerned pointless, childish and quite annoying).
    In a region where religion is much more ubiquitous, like the US, this sort open contempt is much more likely to catch attention. hence the singling out.

    ***

    PS: This blog really needs the option to preview one’s comments.

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

      I only said “as an educator” as a way of saying, because I am concerned with educating people I am especially sensitized to defend learners from abuse that would hinder their learning. Yes I oppose calling people stupid “as a human being” but it is an especially high priority for me because I have the values and sympathies of a teacher concerned with pupils’ well being.

  • A Hermit

    Well said.

    Some of the people I admire most in life and who have inspired and continue to inspire me are believers in God. I happen to think they are mistaken on that one point but I certainly wouldn’t call them stupid or ignore all the things I know I can learn from them because of that one point of disagreement.

    • Elemenope

      Me too. Both of the philosophy professors who had a profound impact on how I see things are theists. They are also stupefyingly intelligent and extremely capable educators. It’s amazing how fast entire groups get written off simply because of a difference of metaphysical opinion.

  • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

    I think that before answering this charge, you’d want to gather some statistics on how often atheists actually do call theists stupid as opposed to theists merely thinking that that’s what’s happening. I’ve been on quite a few discussion forums and I don’t recall atheists calling theists stupid without extreme provocation, like trolling. Of course, I could be suffering from confirmation bias there, but I honestly don’t believe atheist discussions often degenerate into that sort of thing. It happens occasionally when we get accused of being followers of Satan and told with glee that we’re all gonna burn in hell.

    • Elemenope

      I’d say, from my experiences on the atheist blogosphere, that while explicit accusations of stupidity might be rare, generalized contempt for the religious is a cup that runneth over, all over the damn place. Sometimes it is masked as astonishment that a literate person could believe XYZ, but it is hard to miss the hard edge of contempt beneath it, that a person who believes XYZ must have something wrong with their executive and/or cognitive faculties to hold out such beliefs.

      For my part, the one conversational tactic that I use with theists that approaches being cruel is one I borrowed from Nietzsche, because I find it is the only thing startling enough to put pretty much any pious believer completely off balance:

      Theist: “I will not countenance the questioning of my beliefs!”
      Me: “Then your faith is weak.”
      Theist: [Shocked silence]…”How dare you–”
      Me: “If your faith were strong, it would be able to bear questions and explorations. If it cannot, it is too brittle and fragile to be called strong. A strong faith glories in doubts, wrestles with inquiries.”
      Theist: “…”

      And I can report it works (three successes at restarting a dialogue, no failures so far). It must be executed without rancor, though, otherwise it comes off as especially dickish. My contempt is limited to the desire to close off dialogue that normally follows from the theist being offended by questions. Atheists (at least the Humanistic ones), in comparison, tend to get tetchy when it is pointed out that they sometimes don’t live up to their standards of rationality, participate in othering and in-group/out-group shenanigans, rely upon received wisdom rather than critical analysis, and other assorted minor hypocrisies. In my experience, we don’t like that pointed out either. One might say, with trepidation, that oftentimes our “faith” is weak, too. Pretty much everyone likes to think of themselves of being possessed of strong convictions, so sometimes it takes a jolt from outside to truly assess for oneself the actual integrity of one’s core notions.

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

      Unfortunately my experience here is much like Elemenope’s.

  • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave

    Dan,

    But, some people actually are stupid, you know.

    Admittedly, it rarely does any good to point this out.

    But, sometimes, it does feel good.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  • jfigdor

    Really thoughtful piece, Dan. I have to start reading more of your stuff. As a philosopher, I love reading a philosopher who writes well.


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