Respectable Infidels

The Volokh Conspiracy has a fascinating excerpt from the writings of Anthony Comstock (HT, Dispatches from the Culture Wars):

The respectable infidel is not even referred to, but simply those who stand in the forefront, zealous to be known as opposed to God and religion, and who by their blasphemous speeches and publications are putting to shame honest infidels. Every person must respect the infidel who says, “I cannot see nor understand these matters of religion as you do; I wish I could.” There is a vast difference between such a one and the one who seeks by scoffs and sneers to wound the feelings of those who differ from him, or who makes a living by blaspheming the name of God, and discusses those subjects that most closely concern the interests of the soul so as to provoke laughter and applause from thoughtless ones.

Society for the Suppression of Vice

Comstock was one of America’s most notorious censors. In 1873 he founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, whose symbol, no joke, was a man burning books. The Society’s purpose was to file suit to have offensive books banned on obscenity grounds; its most notable victory was a 1921 court decision which resulted in James Joyce’s Ulysses declared obscene and banned in the United States for over ten years.

Also in 1873, Comstock successfully lobbied Congress to pass the eponymous Comstock Law, which outlawed the sending of any “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” material through the mail. Comstock was made a special agent of the Postal Service and enforced this law with relish, targeting not just “obscene” authors such as George Bernard Shaw, but also groups and individuals who provided information on sexuality and birth control. Early feminists such as Victoria Woodhull, Ida Craddock, Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger were all prosecuted by Comstock for distributing such information, with varying degrees of success. Another of his targets was D.M. Bennett, the freethinking author of periodicals like The Truth-Seeker, which supported women’s rights and attacked organized religion. Comstock called himself “the weeder in God’s garden” and boasted of how many people he had driven to suicide.

Remarkably, the distinction Comstock draws in the above excerpt is one that’s still heard today. Even today, the myth persists that there are two different kinds of atheists: the ones who are decent and honest and respect other people’s faith, and the ones who are nasty and extremist and take pleasure in scoffing and mocking at other people’s deeply held and sincere religious convictions.

This is an entirely spurious distinction. There is no bright line that can be drawn between “respectful” and “insulting” speech; pretty much anything that anyone can say will be thought of as entirely proper and appropriate by some and as outrageous by others. Is it respectful when Muslims affirm that God is one (the principle of tawhid), thus denying the fundamental Christian belief of the Trinity? Is it respectful when Christians profess that Jesus was God’s son, which Muslims view as shirk – idolatry – and consider the worst of sins? There is no objective answer to these questions; it depends on what you believe. And how much worse is the situation for atheists, whose very existence is often considered to be an intolerable insult?

Unfortunately, there are some badly misguided people who want to write this spurious distinction into law, and who claim that we can safely ban “hateful” or “insulting” speech without taking away people’s right to voice their own convictions. The most charitable thing that can be said about such people is that they have obviously never given even the most casual thought to the consequences of the policy they advocate.

Comstock’s comments are revealing in another way as well. As I said in “Firebrands“, the kind of atheists whom believers consider “respectable” are atheists who wish they were religious. They approve of atheists who validate their presuppositions about the desirability and superiority of being a theist, or who concede that religious ethics are superior to any secular alternative. Comstock’s remarks fall along this well-trodden line, as does this even earlier example from history, an 1836 sermon from The American National Preacher:

All the most respectable infidels have been ready to acknowledge, that there is no code of laws for the regulation of human conduct, like that of the Bible.

Church-state separation opponent Richard John Neuhaus voiced some similar claims earlier this year, contrasting “blameworthy” atheism with those atheists who merely wish they were believers:

“The world of today knows a new category of people: the atheists in good faith, those who live painfully the situation of the silence of God, who do not believe in God but do not boast about it; rather they experience the existential anguish and the lack of meaning of everything: They too, in their own way, live in the dark night of the spirit.”

Obviously, the apologists who say these things are less than sincere. They’re not truly seeking a civil debate, but submission to their will. Like many fervent believers, they find criticism intolerable and assume that anyone who disagrees with them and says so is an outrageous, disrespectful infidel out to hurt their feelings. To them, “respect” means “obedience”, and honest dissent is disrespectful by definition, no matter how civilly it’s phrased.

But there’s no reason this should daunt us. Even if we were out to hurt believers’ feelings, what would that prove? After all, we don’t belong to any of those religions! We’re under no obligation to treat those religions with respect or to avoid giving offense. That’s a rule for believers, not for nonbelievers, and we are not bound by it.

Nor should we be concerned whether we seem “respectable” in the eyes of believers. Civil, yes. Reasonable, yes. But “respectable” should set off alarm bells: historically, that word has always been used by advocates of majoritarianism to try to shut down reform movements by demonizing them as a bunch of wild, unkempt radicals. After all, when prejudice and superstition are popular, being “respectable” means endorsing those sentiments and going out of one’s way not to offend the people who hold them. “Respectable”, in this context, means keeping quiet and not making a fuss.

To this, I answer that the prejudiced and the irrational should be offended. Discomfiting the holders of such beliefs is the only way society has ever made moral or intellectual progress, and we can never make any if we tiptoe around them. Thus, we should speak our minds, and we need not worry about the reaction from people who would oppose us anyway. We have every right to stand up for what we believe in. If the strongest rejoinder that apologists can muster is that we’re not being nice to them, and they cannot refute our arguments on the merits, that is essentially an admission of defeat.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Matt R.

    It is also noteworthy that in some Christian circles there is no thought given to not offending unbelievers. In fact, some circles condemn those who speak in non-offensive ways as people who “water down the gospel”.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Yup.

    What really jumped out at me was this:

    …rather they (the “good atheists) experience the existential anguish and the lack of meaning of everything: They too, in their own way, live in the dark night of the spirit.

    In other words, the only respectable atheists are the ones who (a) agree with the common theistic position that life without God is life without meaning, and (b) feel really, really unhappy about it.

    In other words: We’re damned if we do, and we’re damned if we don’t. If we agree that life without God is meaningless and depressing, then score one for the theists. If we don’t, if we find life without God to be both meaningful and joyful, then we’re somehow not “in good faith.” In other words, dishonest. In other words, score one for the theists again.

    And then they wonder why we don’t give a flying frack at a rolling donut about whether we hurt their feelings, or what they think of us.

  • carovee

    That was very eloquent. Thank you.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Comstock got his pronouns mixed up. He really meant to say this:

    The respectable theist is not even referred to, but simply those who stand in the forefront, zealous to be known as opposed to scientific inquiry and reason, and who by their condemnatory speeches and publications are putting to shame honest theists.

    There. That looks a lot better and it makes a lot more sense too. ;)

  • Jim Coufal

    And on and on it continues. A recent “Billy Graham — My Answer” column responded to a writer who said he or she had no interest in God or religion, adding “God doesn’t exist, and this life is all there is.” Graham’s response included (1) deep down inside you know God exists, or why fight so strenuously to keep him out of your life, (2) I suspect the real reason you reject God is because you want to be free to run your own life, not because you have critically analyzed the evidence for God and found it wanting, and (3) even thought you have rejected God, he hasn’t rejected you. These old saws have been so thoroughly refuted so many times, I’ll add nothing more here except to say that the implication is that serious atheists are not to be taken seriously, I suppose they are not “respectful”. Although I believe in freedom of the press, I am appalled that this syndicated column is carried in newspapers across the country. The column is not news, it is very much Christian evangelization, without apparent thought even for publishing balancing columns from other points of view.

  • Christopher

    So, this bastard fancied himself a “weeder in the garden of ‘god,’” huh? If there be such a thing as “god,” wouldn’t one think that it would be more than capable of doing its own weeding? The very fact that there is no “weeding” taking place without pious fools like him doing the work should have been evidence enough that (a) there’s no “god” or else (b) any “god” there is doesn’t want any “weeding” done.

    But I suppose some people have lives so empty that they need to fill it with something that makes them feel like they’re “special” and force their “morality” on the rest of us…

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    As I said in “Firebrands”, the kind of atheists whom believers consider “respectable” are atheists who wish they were religious.

    I’m reminded of the viewpoint that implicitly assumes that atheism is a personal flaw of some sort and then asks whether we want to be that way. If we are happy to be atheists, then it’s somehow more our own fault.

    The best thing I got from Ebonmusings was freedom from that idea.

  • Joffan

    On being respectable:

    I hadn’t noticed this before reading your article, but it’s impossible for me to be respectable through my own efforts. It’s something given to me by others.

    So, if I say to you, “You are not respectable”, what I am really saying is, “I do not respect you”, but trying to make it sound like it’s your problem rather than mine.

  • Entomologista

    I suspect the real reason you reject God is because you want to be free to run your own life

    I don’t see why wanting to run your own life is such a terrible thing. Anyway, it’s not like Christians let god get in the way of smoking meth and having sex with prostitutes.

  • Polly

    Lynet said:

    I’m reminded of the viewpoint that implicitly assumes that atheism is a personal flaw of some sort and then asks whether we want to be that way. If we are happy to be atheists, then it’s somehow more our own fault.

    That sounds exactly like the fundie view of homosexuality. The only “saved” gay is one who hates himself for being such. It’s the unrepentant, happy gay (sounds redundant, eh?) who’s seen as iredeemably hell-bound.

  • http://www.theinfinityprogram.com Kevin

    The first part of Adam Lee’s post (that dealing with Comstock) reminds me of the more in-depth treatment of the issue provided in Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, which I much recommend.

    Regarding the second part of the post, I’ve read more than enough Christian apologetics, such as Strobel’s The Case For Faith: A Journalist Investigates The Toughest Objections To Christianity, to have gotten the message loud and clear that many Christians fantasize that a majority of atheists and agnostics, if not all of them, likely have some deep-seated psychological issues that are the true cause of their non-belief of Jesus as Lord and Savior, not intellectual obstacles. They have a whole industry in place that churns out more and more apologetics like the one mentioned to keep telling themselves that so they can feel better about how seemingly normal and even great people can fail to share their worldview and yet seem to be doing well.

  • Quath

    I use to debate on a Christian forum. I remember one Christian getting upset at atheists like me who are insulting Christianity by speaking of the very bad things I see in it. What was ironic was that his signature was “Psalms14:1 The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” So I asked if his tagline was insulting to atheists. He replied that it was not because it was truth.

  • John Nernoff

    Remember, dear folks, that over a billion people are subject to “sharia” law which demands the death penalty for mere apostasy. You don’t have to dare to insult Islam; you merely have to more or less quietly disbelieve to get your head cut off.

  • bestonnet

    Quath:

    What was ironic was that his signature was “Psalms14:1 The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” So I asked if his tagline was insulting to atheists. He replied that it was not because it was truth.

    There is some truth to that statement since what is said in the heart is wrong (although this would also imply that “the fool hath said in his hearth, ‘There is a God’” is true).

    John Nernoff:

    Remember, dear folks, that over a billion people are subject to “sharia” law which demands the death penalty for mere apostasy. You don’t have to dare to insult Islam; you merely have to more or less quietly disbelieve to get your head cut off.

    They have to find out that you don’t believe before they can cut your head off. What standard of proof they use is not known to me.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Quath,
    Next time you can come back at someone like that by quoting the Bible. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus claims that anyone who calls another a fool is subject to the judgement.

  • EKM

    I suspect the real reason you reject God is because you want to be free to run your own life

    Yet religious people think it is okay to run other people’s lives. To a Christian, egotism and selfishness is not them telling what to do with your life, it is you not doing it.

    Besides, aren’t religious people always equating religion and freedom? What’s the problem, Mr Graham?

  • http://www.game.pedna.com John Brown

    Great post!! Thank You.

  • lpetrich

    That’s Matthew 5:22:

    You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother[b]will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

    (NIV; Matt 5:21 added for context)

    So if you call someone a fool, you deserve eternal damnation.

  • http://www.kellygorski.com Kelly

    I would like to know exactly when it become taboo to “offend” someone. Anyone know?

  • http://www.kellygorski.com Kelly

    Oooooh, I feel a blog comin’ on!!!

  • bestonnet

    It’s pretty much always been taboo to offend the powerful (or at least anyone who complains about being offended too much).