Adapt or Die

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

My previous two posts on mockery have drawn a lot of criticism, including charges that I am an accommodationist.  If that were the case, the definition of accommodationism had gotten way too broad.  Trying to treat people with respect is different from asserting that their beliefs are true, or, at a minimum, not actively harmful.  Accommodationists have no desire to deconvert Christians or other believers, but there’s a lot of room in the atheist movement for people like me, who want to change the minds of the other side and have grave doubts that mockery and disdain are the right tools for our goal.

Most atheists won’t meet Christians who have never had their beliefs mocked, so few of us will plausibly shake their confidence by being the first person not to give their claims automatic credence.  There may still be misconceptions you can be the first to correct (I’ve heard plenty of “Why are you angry at God” and had to explain I don’t believe in a God that would attract my ire), but you’re less likely to get to a productive conversation about nuances if you open with anger.

And if Christians have been criticized before, why do we expect it will be our sneer that does them in.  After all, even if they aren’t particularly well versed in their faith, they’ve probably heard the Beatitudes, specifically Matthew 5:10-12.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

Most Christians are braced for criticism and welcome it.  Whether they see an attack as an opportunity to evangelize, a moment to demonstrate righteousness in defense of their god or a chance to play the victim on the public stage, they’re ready to take advantage of it.  And they didn’t last for 2000 years by being flat out dumb; their responses have undergone a kind of evolutionary selection.   Almost all Christians have answers to common atheists or denominational questions, so a quippy attack is of limited efficacy.

In the long history of the various Christian traditions, those who couldn’t offer something plausible enough to hold on to followers (or those who had unsustainable teachings, cf. the Shakers) died out.  Plenty of smart people have been Christians, and they’ve had a long time to kludge together apologetic responses to objections.  Sometimes, the relentless expansion of theology results in cruft that I like to label scriptural fanfiction, but the end result is a tangle of ripostes to any entry-level criticism you have to offer.

The simplest (and worst) response are the ones we’re most familiar with, the fundamentalists who deny the scientific method, the legitimacy of any kind of statistical analysis, and even any human grasp of causality.  It’s well nigh impossible to argue with these people.  You can always try pointing out they trust the conclusions of scientists in their day to day life, and ought to give them credence on bigger questions like evolution or the age of the universe, but you’ll find some sects (esp Christian Scientists) have already embraced the reductio ad absurdum you were trying to set up and have rejected any semblance of an intelligible world in the here and now.  You’re not likely to get very far with rational argument, and, although mockery may give you a spiteful pleasure, it’s not likely to do the self-deceived much good.

Plenty of other Christians believe that their faith is compatible with the more ordinary truths of the world they live in, and they’ve been working to harmonize their dogma with the data on the ground.  Their answers may be convoluted or unverifiable, but they satisfy the people in the tradition.  It’s  no good raising questions and smirking if you can’t rebut the next reply.  When atheists overreach, they discredit our whole movement.

Luke of Common Sense Atheism joined Andrew of Evaluating Christianity to make the case that most atheists who debate William Lane Craig shouldn’t.  You might know that WLC’s arguments are bunk, but if you can’t make the case against him cogently and quickly, your smugness hurts our image.  Arrogance can win you an audience, but if you can’t back it up with argument, you’re handing weapons to the enemy.

If your goal isn’t deconversion, or, at the very least, sapping public support for policies sourced in Christian doctrine, then I’m not sure why you’re having hostile confrontations in the first place.  Some commenters made the case that the stupidity of our opponents or the harm they do is sufficient justification for holding them up to ridicule.  I disagree.  If you’re in it for the bloodsport, knock it off.  It’s one thing to take an aggressive stance because you honestly believe you have the best interest of your target at heart and quite another to think that your own intelligence or skepticism entitles you to make the less privileged suffer.

I’ve spent more of my time here at Daylight Atheism talking about poor deconversion tactics than I planned.  Tomorrow, you can count on a more constructive post on strategy inspired by my recent trip to see Broadway’s The Book of Mormon.  In the meantime, I do have a list of three avenues of questioning I offered in argument with a campus ministry group.

  • Jormungundr

    Almost all Christians have answers to common atheists to denominational questions, so a quippy attack is of limited efficacy.

    From my experiences with door to door knocker and campus evangelists, I do not find this to be the case.
    Most don’t seem to have meaningful responses outside of whatever narrow range of what their apologetic literature has taught them.
    But then I don’t mock them and try to have a pleasant conversation with such people.
    I remember a pair of Korean Campus Crusade for Christ members trying to explain the fine tuning argument to me and I responded with something like “isn’t that just saying ‘things would sure be different if they were different’” and they let that point drop rather than try to defend it. Maybe Korean Campus Crusade for Christ members are just univentive, but if you drive them off script while they are trying to explain some apologetic argument to you they shut down and just give that argument up rather than actually argue the point. I haven’t been in any face to face religious discussions since I graduated, but I remember campus evangelists as being unable to respond to even basic complaints about their apologetic arguments.
    I would have thought that such fishermen of men would be well prepared against counter arguments. Perhaps other Christians are better prepared than they are.

  • http://www.unequally-yoked.com/ LeahAdmin

    That’s a fair criticism, Jormungundr. In the argument with the Campus for Christ people I linked, they didn’t really respond to any of my questions or responses. I couldn’t believe they were tasked with converting people. However, even if the individuals you’re talking to don’t have answers, often the preachers backstopping them will, and it’s good to try to pre-refute the answers they’ll get if you manage to make an impression.

    It’s also the case that a lot of atheists treat some objections (especially the problem of theodicy) as sure-fire defeaters when almost every stripe of Christianity has spent time coming up with an answer they find reasonable.

  • James

    Hi Leah,

    I think your previous posts are perhaps too generous to many people who consider themselves Christian.

    There are many irrational ideas floating around; it’s instructive to see what sorts of people attach themselves to which strange beliefs.

    Consider Harold Camping’s followers: many of them turn out to be quite poor, such as the unemployed stock broker who suggested he might be the Messiah. Others seem to be unhappy with their lives, such as the guy who drove to California to await the Rapture because he hoped Heaven would be better than this life. Then there were the parents who told their children quite frankly that they would go to hell and (not so coincidentally) decided to stop saving for their college educations, while still insisting they do their chores.

    It seems to me there is a pattern here. Camping’s followers chose to believe in the Rapture rather than, say, Scientology, largely because it appealed to some deep psychological need. The coming Rapture freed these people from any obligation to anyone, even their families and themselves. Unhappy with their current lives, they desperately wanted a better life.

    To desire a better life is something one can easily empathize with, but the Rapture believers also wanted to put everyone else down. They didn’t buy lottery tickets and pray that they would win; they decided to attach themselves a belief system that held that everyone else would either be annihilated or spend eternity in torment. What a narcissistic idea! It’s really rather sickening.

    So perhaps such people don’t deserve a great deal of consideration, and might well be worthy of some mockery.

    But your other point remains. Is there any good reason to mock such people? Will it actually help “deconvert” (I don’t like this term) them?

    Consider the broader American Evangelical movement (which, it should be kept in mind, is a strikingly new movement in terms of beliefs and attitudes) and other similar branches of Christianity. This movement reassures its members that they will go to Heaven, and that most other people won’t. I suspect that evangelicals, generally poorer whites from increasingly marginalized states in the South, feel a loss of power in the United States and try to reassure themselves of their importance by believing that they are chosen to go to Heaven while everyone else is doomed to Hell.

    As you pointed out, angry responses to such beliefs just encourage such Christians’ smugness. And mocking responses also serve to make such Christians feel proud of their martyrdom. Both serve to increase the sense of power that these Christians are aware that they are losing. So it would seem that such responses would be useless at best, and possibly even counter productive?

    But what about, instead of mockery, honest mirth at the ridiculousness of such assertions about Heaven and Hell? There are few people who can remain comfortable as the source of open laughter. Perhaps, changed from a threatening presence to an amusing one, a few people holding irrational beliefs might begin to waver? Is it perhaps worth trying?

    Leah, I enjoy your blog posts (here and on your own blog), and I enjoy thinking about the tricky theological and moral issues you bring up. But as you point out, religious people generally have some sort of answer to atheist objections to their faith. These answers are usually at least somewhat illogical, but they satisfy believers. Perhaps a better approach towards “activist atheism” (I don’t know the correct term, or even if this is the primary purpose of your blog) might be to try to trace out the psychological motivations behind irrational religious beliefs.

    Often it’s striking how obvious such motivations can be. It’s amazing how many people who just lost a loved one became deeply convinced of the reality of psychics and ESP.

    But perhaps the most amazing is the 1,000,000 results that come up when one Google searches for “pro-life ‘I was adopted’”.

    It seems to me that understanding such motivations is vital to fighting irrationality.

  • Rieux

    My previous two posts on mockery have drawn a lot of criticism, including charges that I am an accommodationist.

    That is, unfortunately, understandable: the way you have comported yourself here bears a striking resemblance to the ways accommodationists ignorantly lecture Gnus on subjects about which the accommodationists are clueless.

    I’m sorry, but there are in fact very good and frequently enunciated reasons why Gnus think mockery is valuable and effective—and it’s been depressing to see you demonstrate a total ignorance of all such reasons while seeing fit to lecture Gnus about why we shouldn’t do what we do. I’ve been a fan of “Unequally Yoked”; this series of posts has been badly beneath you.

    In your previous Daylight Atheism thread, a handful of commenters (most prominently Yahzi) tried to explain to you some of the basic points you’re totally missing, but it appears from this post that you ignored it all. So I’d like to urge that you read frequent Gnu blog commentator Paul W.’s series of lengthy comments on Gnu Atheism and Overton Window strategies. You badly need a basic grounding in these ideas.

    You could also try Jason Rosenhouse’s post on Gnus and civility; he might as well have been writing about your posts here:

    Let me also suggest that it is never a good argument to complain about someone’s tone by saying something like, “You’re not going to convince anyone!” That is a lazy argument used exclusively by people more interested in seeming above it all than in actually engaging the issues. Incivility is a tool in the arsenal. It is very good for calling attention to an issue and to a point of view. If the incivility is backed up by a good argument it can be very powerful.

    [....]

    So much of the discourse on these topics imagines two clearly defined sides with everyone having already taken a stand one way or the other. People with an emotional stake on one side are likely to dig in when confronted by rudeness from the other, so we are all supposed to speak in soothing, gentle tones. But that is a ludicrous oversimplification of reality. What about all the people who are on the fence? What about people who have long been uncomfortable with their religious lives but have never heard a non-cartoonish version of any alternatives? What about all the people who have their eyes opened by the visibility atheism now has as a result of Dawkins’ writing? What about all the other books, and public presentations, and You Tube videos that were sparked by Dawkins’ success?

    And, yes, some people will be turned off by his tone. So be it. Life is full of trade-offs. The price of reaching a large audience is calling attention to yourself in ways that some will find distasteful. You can’t please everyone and all that.

    Speaking of Dawkins, he rebutted the central fallacy in your approach here as well, though he thought he was just responding to Phil “Don’t Be A Dick” Plait:

    Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. Speaking for myself, it is often a third party (or a large number of third parties) who are listening in, or reading along. When Peter Medawar destroyed Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, in the most devastatingly barbed book review I have ever read, he wasn’t trying to convert Teilhard. Teilhard was already dead in any case. Medawar was trying (and succeeding, in spades) to convert the large number of gullible fools who had been taken in by Teilhard.

    Similarly, when I employ ridicule against the arguments of a young earth creationist, I am almost never trying to convert the YEC himself. That is probably a waste of time. I am trying to influence all the third parties listening in, or reading my books. I am amazed at Plait’s naivety in overlooking that and treating it as obvious that our goal is to convert the target of our ridicule. Ridicule may indeed annoy the target and cause him to dig his toes in. But our goal might very well be (in my case usually is) to influence third parties, sitting on the fence, or just not very well-informed about the issues. And to achieve that goal, ridicule can be very effective indeed.

    So: in those places and several others, Gnus have made it overly clear that the most important benefits of mockery have nothing to do with converting the believer present whose beliefs are being mocked. In your Daylight Atheism posts, your response to this explanation has been… absolutely nothing. You clearly don’t have the first clue that this argument has ever been made. And yet you see fit to attack Gnus for practicing a strategy that you evidently entirely fail to understand.

    That’s extremely obnoxious behavior. If you insist on hectoring us for doing things that we think we have very good reasons to do, and you clearly haven’t done the first thing to find out what our reasons are, but merely substitute your own simplistic misconceptions instead, exactly why should we not dismiss your criticisms—and indeed you—as clueless?

    Then, it should also be noted that you’ve stepped in it with regard to a couple of other premises, such as your notion that “Most atheists won’t meet Christians who have never had their beliefs mocked.” That’s ludicrous. It implies simply shocking ignorance of the insular lives that millions of Christians lead. A huge number of Christians are in fact totally unfamiliar with the most basic (and mockable) problems with Christian doctrine. (It’s hard to avoid concluding that you are fallaciously extrapolating from your own very abnormal experience, as an “Unequally Yoked” blogger, with believers who have a passing familiarity with skeptical critiques of their beliefs.)

    Finally, your attacks on, for example, Pharyngula in your previous post are notably ignorant of other positive externalities of using ridicule as a weapon, some of which the IWP pointed out:

    Ridicule raises morale at home.

    Ridicule strips the enemy/adversary of his mystique and prestige.

    Ridicule erodes the enemy’s claim to justice.

    Ridicule eliminates the enemy’s image of invincibility.

    Directed properly at an enemy, ridicule can be a fate worse than death.

    The boisterous and effective Pharyngula community, built to a not insignificant extent on the mockery of religion, is a very positive example of “raising morale at home,” and yet you simply ignore all such matters when pretending that the only conceivable benefit to such mockery is the deconversion of its targets. There are in fact a wide range of benefits to enter into the cost/benefit calculation you demand, but you have the silly idea that conversion of the mocked is the only benefit that counts. You’re wrong, and it sure looks like it’s because you haven’t actually thought about this carefully or seriously.

    Please stop this. You need to do a whole lot more reading and trying-to-understand before you deserve to mount the high horse you’ve been preaching from on Adam’s blog.

  • Rieux

    I linked to Paul W.’s justifiably famous Comment #29 in my previous entry. Reading “#29″ again, it struck me that the closing handful of paragraphs are an all-but-direct-response to Leah’s regrettable line here, so I thought it could use a blockquote in this thread:

    Every time we [Gnu Atheists] hear strategic advice that amounts to “you catch more flies with honey” by somebody telling us what to do, who is apparently entirely ignorant of Overton window strategies, it pisses us off.

    We get really, really sick of people telling us what to do without addressing our very good reasons for doing what we’re doing, and actually showing that their reasons are better than our reasons.

    One thing that does frequently bring deep emotions into play is the sense that accommodationists frequently advise us what to do as though they think we’re simplistic strategically naive zealots, as opposed to thoughtful people with well-thought-out positions, good arguments, and an arguably excellent strategic rationale that is almost never even mentioned, much less properly addressed, by people who proffer an “obviously better” strategy toward apparently different goals.

    Until accommodationists are willing to talk very, very seriously about Overton issues, we’re going to dismiss their strategic advice as the shallow, platitudinous crap that we think it is. As long as they act like we don’t even have a strategy, and criticize us for not going along with theirs, we’re going to be seriously annoyed when they tell us to do what they want us to do, instead of what we’re doing.

    Talking about us as though we’re simply strategically naive and gratuitously confrontational is straw-manning us, and we are sick as shit of it. Its been going on nonstop for years, and doesn’t show any sign of stopping.

    We do understand accommodationist arguments. Of course we do. We always have. It isn’t exactly rocket science. (Or even passable political science.) And we’ve always had good reasons for disagreeing with them, which are almost universally ignored by accommodationists, who continue to talk past us, and talk systematically misleading cartoonish smack about us.

    That’s just seriously annoying, isn’t? Should we not be annoyed by that?

    That’s why you’re being called an accommodationist, Leah. And it’s why you’re getting a hostile response. You’re arguing precisely what Paul describes, right there, and there are awfully good reasons for your opponents to find it very aggravating.

  • Patrick

    Leah, I think you give religious believers far, far too much credit for actually knowing what they purport to believe.

    For what its worth, I view most religion as a socially acceptable form of supremacism. Seriously, Leah- you should consider that the standard teaching in most Christian churches is that you, personally, aren’t capable of loving your children should you ever have them (at least not REALLY loving them, as much as THEY love THEIR children). That bit of supremacist theology is literally part of everyday sermons, and many marital ceremonies. This is already a hot war, but a bizarre one in which the wonderful effects of privilege let huge swaths of people viciously dehumanize you without feeling like they’re doing anything wrong.

    And you really shouldn’t assume that the approaches you find personally morally distasteful are therefore more ineffective than the ones you prefer. Remember that your approach also has scripted counters built into religious belief systems. For example, your “caring” readers who believe that one day soon you’ll convert. Their world view has a non-threatening slot into which they will file you, exactly as they do to those atheists you think are overly abrasive.

  • Dan

    Leah, the tone of your posting is precisely that of the Christian Brothers of Ireland whose high school I suffered through. I don’t need to be lectured to nor do I require firm posturing. Adam’s blog is about ideas, not shoulds or musts. I hope he’s back soon.

  • Fargus

    Yeah, Leah, I’ve got to agree with the others here. I won’t be as harsh, but it’s certainly not because harshness isn’t merited. It’s just because it’s not my way.

    I also won’t go into meticulous detail about the wrongness of your post. I just want to focus on one part:

    Luke of Common Sense Atheism joined Andrew of Evaluating Christianity to make the case that most atheists who debate William Lane Craig shouldn’t. You might know that WLC’s arguments are bunk, but if you can’t make the case against him cogently and quickly, your smugness hurts our image. Arrogance can win you an audience, but if you can’t back it up with argument, you’re handing weapons to the enemy.

    If your goal isn’t deconversion, or, at the very least, sapping public support for policies sourced in Christian doctrine, then I’m not sure why you’re having hostile confrontations in the first place. Some commenters made the case that the stupidity of our opponents or the harm they do is sufficient justification for holding them up to ridicule. I disagree. If you’re in it for the bloodsport, knock it off. It’s one thing to take an aggressive stance because you honestly believe you have the best interest of your target at heart and quite another to think that your own intelligence or skepticism entitles you to make the less privileged suffer.

    This is entirely wrong. Egregiously wrong. And scared. You seem to say that if we can’t make an empirical and factual argument against the likes of William Lane Craig within some unspoken time threshold, then we appear smug and that hurts us. Bull. The guy who’s making untrue assertions is the smug one. Sure, he can throw out 50 lies that each take longer to debunk than they take to spew, but that’s precisely why mockery of such a person is an effective tactic: it gives us a short-circuit to quickly and efficiently cut him down to size. People like WLC know the tricks of debating people, and if you’re interested in getting the facts out there, he’ll overwhelm with such a torrent of crap that you can’t even get your shoes tied before he’s declared victory and wrapped it up. Mocking may come across as smug, but that’s no reason not to do it, especially if you’ve decided to debate someone who’s skilled in prevarication.

    As to the second paragraph, can we please see all of these phantom people who are just in this to kick the less privileged when they’re down? You posit them, and you dress them down, but it really feels like you made them up for the occasion. When viewed broadly, whether mockery passes your narrow test of trying to change policy or delegitimize authority, it all serves that same end in the aggregate. It’s people like you who should knock off the concern trolling. And I don’t even have to make up a straw man version of you to argue against.

    Like I said in my comment to your previous post, I don’t think that there’s much marginal utility in mocking those who are almost universally mocked anyway, but I think that there is utility in transitioning from mocking them to mocking more mainstream figures, no matter how smug accommodationists like Leah may think it makes me.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Oh Adam’s just as capable as telling us what to believe when he feels like it. The fact that I usually agree with him doesn’t alter that :)

    As usual though with these sorts of debates, reality is much more nuanced than the theory. There is room for both approaches as circumstances dictate.
    I am all for humour and ridicule, but I take Leah’s previous “know your audience” point.
    For example Dawkins was on the Sunday morning BBC show “The Big Question” a few weeks ago. He took his usual confrontational and slightly sneering stance which, I agree, works well in print but actually lost him the argument in the studio, because he gave the apologists the opportunity to critisise his tone rather than address the argument.
    On the other hand “true ridicule from the likes of Tim Minchin, Ricky Gervais, Dara O’Briain et al is a priceless weapon in war against religion and I’m all for it.

  • Doug Kirk

    I really have to side with most of the regular commentors. The grand majority of atheist responses I’ve seen to the religious have been measured and strident only in the way that they do not compromise the truth. Every now and then I do see sohpomoric insults, but that is very rarely a regular commentor on a sites I read, (Pharyngula, Daylight Atheism, etc.) and when it is a regular, it is usually in response to a regular (and generally insipid or willfully obtuse) religious commentor. And never, NEVER, the writers and de facto spokespeople themselves.

    In fact, for all the reports I’ve heard of atheists making mommies cry and shouting forced laughter in the face of reverends, I have never once seen one of the people who author the reports substantiate their claims with real evidence. But to be sure I’ve seen plenty of times where they’ve made it up or faked it.

    I’m not saying you’re lying Leah; I just think you’ve been sucked into a greater narrative perpetuated by both the religious and the religion freindly organizations that paint atheists as broad and unerring jackasses for having the temerity to tell the truth and not willfully circumvent their ethical stances by acknowledging that what is not true, is true.

  • Doug Kirk

    There also seems to be a weird dichotomy where some people see mockery as “Your beliefs are not true. No I don’t resspect them and yes they are harmful. These are the reasons why…” and others see it as, you know, actually mocking people. One of which isn’t mockery at all, but simply not compromising; the other which has its uses and proper times and improper times according to audience. Of course, the definitions get muddied up generally by one side redifining the word…..

  • http://www.unequally-yoked.com/ LeahAdmin

    Ok, there were a lot of comments overnight, so I can only get to some of thems right this second.

    @Doug Kirk: I absolutely agree that there’s a big difference between mocking someone’s beliefs and clearly stating that you disagree, don’t think they stand up to the evidence on the ground, and explaining your reasoning. Both of these approaches are confrontational and possibly jarring, but I think only one of them is likely to produce helpful results. You’re right that religious people tend to apply the ‘mocking’ label way too broadly, in an attempt to discredit us. It’s important to contest that claim, not try to defend mockery generally.

    @Rieux: You’re comment deserves a longer response, and I’ll try and get you one this afternoon, but in re your comments about Pharyngula being a morale boosting opportunity, I have doubts about whether it’s helpful to buck ourselves up that way, especially in public. I wrote about PZ Myers’s Eucharist stunt over at my blog, and I think it was the product of an besieged, insular environment. I agree we are besieged, but I think that puts us in the position of having to bend over backwards to keep the moral high ground. Myers’s stunt caused people pain, even if that pain was the result of false beliefs. A casual disregard for the cost of that pain (typified by commenter March Hare on the post I linked) is cruel and unnecessary.

    @Dan: You can’t talk about ideas without talking about the consequences of those ideas. If a philosophy doesn’t end up being prescriptive, I’m not sure what use it is. That said, I am genuinely sorry that my time here has been unproductive and that my choice of tone has alienated people.

  • Rieux

    in re your comments about Pharyngula being a morale boosting opportunity, I have doubts about whether it’s helpful to buck ourselves up that way, especially in public.

    Well, you can kindly have your doubts, and we’ll have our enormously valuable boisterously atheist- (not to mention life-) affirming community, thanks. Whether you personally deign to find it “helpful” (do you really not realize how oppressively snotty and superior that sounds?) is not clearly an important question.

    And I hope you noticed that the Pharyngula point (i.e., the community-building value of members of disempowered minorities ridiculing majority excess) was not in fact the central focus of my comment. I’m still waiting to see the first indication that you’ve bothered to waste a single synapse contemplating the fact that ridicule has demonstrable effects on, and in fact is very frequently intended to move, people on the sidelines.

  • Ash

    Leah, you’re still missing the point that ridicule isn’t meant to deconvert the already religious. For that, I think the best approach is to get the believer to dwell on and magnify any doubts they have, or create doubt if I can’t readily identify the believer’s. In a sense, tear a small hole that will eventually grow and rip the fabric. Mockery is used to tear down the assumed authority of a speaker that not everyone would immediately recognize as having no authority and ill-conceived (but plausible-sounding) arguments.
    Also, your attack on those who desecrated crackers is pure accomodationism. Pain over the crackers is self-inflicted – it’s like someone beating himself up or slashing his wrists for sympathy and attention, over and over again. Munchausen’s Syndrome is another analogy. That kind of behavior doesn’t deserve sympathy or attention.

  • Rieux

    Wow, your shots at Myers over Crackergate are even more contemptuously blind to context, both factual and strategic, than your posts here have been. And look who pointed (part of) that out. (Your attempt at a rebuttal, then, suffers from all of the problems you’ve been tripping over here this week: idle, uninformed contemplation didn’t lead you to think of a positive effect of Crackergate, therefore you declared there wasn’t one. Joseph P. Overton might be spinning in his grave, though I doubt it.)

    This has been a disheartening few days to read Daylight Atheism.

  • Joe Geiger

    Something tells me that if this discussion concerned Climate Change, Geocentrism, or Homeopathy, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Where’s the outcry for civility and attention to tone when confronting folks that believe in lots of other things that have no supporting evidence but that have no obvious tie to religion? With each post here on this topic, Leah is painting herself tighter and tighter into the accommodationist’s corner and it’s kind of sad to watch.

  • Juni

    There also seems to be a weird dichotomy where some people see mockery as “Your beliefs are not true. No I don’t resspect them and yes they are harmful. These are the reasons why…” and others see it as, you know, actually mocking people. One of which isn’t mockery at all, but simply not compromising; the other which has its uses and proper times and improper times according to audience.

    Doug, I’m inclined to agree with you here re:confusion of terms. I think it’s important to make sure to have elements of the first in the second–more mainstream mocking of Camping (outside the atheist blogosphere) focused on them being self-evidently ridiculous, which is fine, but lets similar theologies off the hook a bit and enables them to say “Yep! Not like those ridiculous folks!” because the mocking had no content to make them uncomfortable.

    At the end of the day, I think tone is more to blame than substance in causing (at least the sideline) people to tune out. As someone who believes STRONGLY in the importance of Overton strategies, I suppose “Do you honestly believe that a God directs this suffering?” might move the Overton Window in a more limited way than “Do you honestly believe that an Invisible Sky-Wizard directs this suffering?” but not by much. It’s not infrequent I read a post online from a commentator I usually agree with (even here!) that use a line or two that is so dismissive or mocking that my gut instinct is to ignore the whole post. Sometimes I compel myself to read on, sometimes I don’t.

    One question that may be relevant for people engaging with this post: how do people feel about the “audience” in majority-atheist communities with smaller religious subsets? I’m from the US Northeast and, like Leah, went to Yale, and have traveled in majority-atheist communities for most of my remembered life. I think the approach to those who are not persuaded to reject the idea of God within those communities is going to be very different than the way you might approach someone from Damon Fowler’s community. Disagree?

  • Tacroy

    Most Christians are braced for criticism and welcome it. Whether they see an attack as an opportunity to evangelize, a moment to demonstrate righteousness in defense of their god or a chance to play the victim on the public stage, they’re ready to take advantage of it. And they didn’t last for 2000 years by being flat out dumb; their responses have undergone a kind of evolutionary selection. Almost all Christians have answers to common atheists or denominational questions, so a quippy attack is of limited efficacy.

    That is almost entirely incorrect. Christian answers have not really undergone any sort of evolutionary selection, because up until about twenty years ago people were rarely openly atheistic. Their ideas have not been put through the crucible of rational argumentation, and are still stuck in the middle ages.

    An example: some I-don’t-know-what missionaries (probably Jenova’s Witnesses :)) came to my door. I forget what they opened with, but I said “Oh I’m sorry, I don’t really believe in God, but I’m kinda curious: what is the reason why you believe in God?”. He said, “When you look around you, isn’t it amazing how everything seems to be designed? And wouldn’t that designer have to be God?”

    I mean, seriously? The argument from design? Is that what this guy presents as his reason for believing? (well, at least it’s not a magical frozen waterfall) And his troupe is wandering around graduate student housing, for goodness sakes! You don’t even need to make an atheistic rebuttal to that thing!

    So, standing there in my boxers, I said “But isn’t that incredibly prideful, to say ‘because I don’t know how it could have come about naturally, it must have been designed’? Isn’t that full of hubris, to say that because you can’t imagine how it could have happened naturally, it could not have happened naturally?”

    After that we exchanged a couple of pleasantries, and they never came to my door again (though they do still wander around, I’ve seen them knocking on other people’s doors).

    But see: this is the quality of Christian argumentation in, oh, 2010. It is no better than it was in 1910, or 1810, or 1010 – because their ideas have not been exposed to the grindstone of reality.

    I think the problem you’re having is that you think that you mistakenly attribute some substance to their position, and that therefore other people should respect that substance. As far as I can tell, that’s far too generous. There’s no there, there.

  • Ferny

    Two points:

    1. Leah, your response to mockery reminds me of your response to the We Are One rally. The purpose sometimes is solely morale boosting and this is perfectly acceptable. Not all potential discourse has to be about persuasion. Creating communities is a valuable exercise.

    2. I think your conception is largely connected to the Northeast and to your exposure of people that purposefully think about Christian belief (since you’re engaged in a discourse with them, they are biased to be that, simply because you’re smart). This is clearly not the case for most people. Most people simply have very weak arguments based from being in environments where there isn’t religious pluralism and does, no significant difference between religious beliefs and pro-forma dominant culture. Catholics in South Texas rarely think about if their religion is “correct” – it just is.

  • TommyP

    Well I certainly agree that starting out angry doesn’t work most of the time, but overall in my experience the ridicule was the first major outside thing to break through my shell of faith. I eventually ran out of ways to rationalize it with my faith, as I wrote in the comments on your previous post.

    I’m not particularly confrontational about it in everyday life, but if I’m confronted with it, I usually try to make an outspoken objection. It helped me when I needed it, and I expect it’s helped other people too. I know some of it’s gotten through to my mother, who last year finally expressed her doubts as to the nature and powers of God. A lot of those seeds were planted by me bitching and railing against the crap ideas I had been force fed, and I wouldn’t have been so angry if people hadn’t come across me first and torn down the walls of my faith. It’s a rough gift but for me, well, I finally started to live and see hope for the future!

  • spec

    As is often said, religious opinions are treated with undue sanctity – protected against common sense and logic people would be apt to apply in other situations, despite the general larger-than-life significance of these types of beliefs (at their core) – and open mockery is the most natural, effective, direct way to shatter that artificial bubble of protection existing in people’s psyches and in our cultural atmosphere. That said, there are always interpersonal ethical considerations in most daily circumstances, and given that fact I think it’s important the concept of “respect” and its moral import is discussed plainly.

    Respect, the word itself, has a number of definitions. I presume we can generally agree there’s no need to always admire other people’s beliefs or attitudes, and recognize the futility and servility of agreeing to abide by religion’s typical BS without complaint. But to what extent should we avoid causing harm (in terms of emotions or mood, presumably) or interference with their intentions while in pursuit of nurturing their understanding of the truth? Should we care? The answer is yes we should care, but no we needn’t avoid causing immediate distress or ire, because long-term outcomes are the real goal and they aren’t always easy to achieve. Getting a splinter out of your finger or working out of a substance addiction (to the extent this is possible) are not easy things to do – you will be very uncomfortable in the process; likewise, upsetting others or creating consternation are the natural side effects of losing grip of something you hold dear or have personal investment in. (Further, we can also elect to be role models of open-mindedness in this regard, and show others what it means to take criticism like freethinking adults: without kicking and screaming, but with welcome arms for being persuaded contrary to our initial beliefs.)

    As for whether ridicule is an effective mind-changer alone, I’d have to guess no, probably not. I don’t think any one tactic or mindset in isolation has the power to undo something like mainstream religious belief, the reason being that delusion is a psychologically complex entity. It’s a messy tangle that requires pulling in different directions at different times. That’s not a point against any single tactic.

    Lastly, as for the public “image” of New Atheism. If conversing and ruminating over atheists’ smugness is so distracting of believers from matters of substance, then they’ll likely hang on some other point of issue to distract themselves if it isn’t attitude they focus on. There’s no need to play that game of attention-redirection if we’re designed to lose anyway. When people are bent on not actually butting heads with meaningful questions but staying safely away from them, or maneuvering around them in a self-satisfactory way, it’s not our responsibility to minimize their activation of irrationality by not giving them hard shit, it’s only our responsibility to knock down everything they throw up – we need only speak it like it is and the rest is up to them and all of our progeny. This is a generalizable conclusion which applies to much more than religion – it goes for delusion and error of all flavors and types.

  • http://twitter.com/johnradke jtradke

    Just because something makes you uncomfortable doesn’t make it morally wrong, or even unproductive. Tone-policing, to me, seems like a bunch of post-hoc rationalizations for some general discomfort people experience with confrontational rhetoric or provocative civil disobedience.

    To me, it’s just like homophobia – the idea of two men having sex instinctively makes many (most?) straight people uncomfortable (much more than does two women, but that’s for another day), so they conjure up reasons why it’s immoral in order to justify their squicked-out feelings.

    Well, if it makes you uncomfortable but it’s not actually wrong, then the problem lies in your own unreasonable expectations for the behavior of other people. As skeptical people, we all need to be vigilant that our views are not being shaped solely by some instinctive discomfort with the action being judged.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Most atheists won’t meet Christians who have never had their beliefs mocked,

    Honey, you need to get out more.

    Oops… more mockery. You know, maybe we can’t help it. Maybe some of us just cannot respond to arrogant ignorance with anything other than mockery. :D )

    The day I meet a Christian who doesn’t throw Pascal’s Wager at me is the day I’ll… well, I’ve never even thought about it, because I don’t expect it to happen. They all get there, invariably within the first 30 minutes. Heck, sometimes I get it twice from the same person… sometimes in the same conversation.

    I’ll try one more time, in bold, hoping you can be bothered to read at least two sentences from me:

    Religious people did not adopt their position for rational reasons; therefore, they will not abandon it for rational reasons. They adopted their position for social and emotional reasons, and mockery is a perfectly legitimate way to attack social and emotional positions.

  • Rieux

    I agree with you on substance, Yahzi, but I think the “Honey” thing is a bit genderedly ugly. It’s not exactly difficult to show why Leah’s wrong (in fact, you did it repeatedly in the previous thread) without bringing in language that has such clear male-privilege overtones.

  • spec

    I’m guessing that means Yahzi’s a dude?

  • http://twitter.com/camusdude Mathew Wilder

    Women don’t ever call each other “honey” condescendingly? Hmmm.

  • Kaelik

    Always better to just assume sexism first, even when you don`t know the gender.

    I do like how the accusation of sexism is so powerful that we take it on faith that the only way it could not be sexist is if Yahzi is a woman.

    That`s really the way it should be, accusations of sexism should be guilty until proven innocent.

  • Rieux

    Funny, but I don’t see anyone “assuming sexism,” or for that matter leveling an “accusation” to that end. Or even writing the word “sexism.”

    Interesting conclusion you jumped to, though.

  • Kaelik

    I think it is patently obvious that when we talk about “male privilege” we are in fact talking about sexism. If it wasn’t sexist, it wouldn’t be male privilege. Male privilege is by definition sexism.

    But since it was in fact a comment to spec/Wilder that even if you didn’t actually “accuse” or “assume” sexism, that those are the correct responses in this case, it’s largely immaterial what you actually meant.

  • Rieux

    I think it is patently obvious that when we talk about “male privilege” we are in fact talking about sexism.

    You’re mistaken. Male privilege is not “by definition sexism,” especially in the context of “assumptions” and “accusations” of the latter.

    My comment referred to Yahzi “bringing in language that has such clear male-privilege overtones.” That reference does not “assume” sexism or “accuse” anyone of it. I’ll thank you not to misrepresent what I’ve written.

  • Kaelik

    “I’ll thank you not to misrepresent what I’ve written.”

    Well then it’s a good thing I didn’t, and you are getting upset about nothing.

    I didn’t represent what you said, mis or otherwise, so your whining is pretty pointless.

  • RiddleOfSteel

    Leah wrote: My previous two posts on mockery have drawn a lot of criticism, including charges that I am an accommodationist. If that were the case, the definition of accommodationism had gotten way too broad. Trying to treat people with respect is different from asserting that their beliefs are true, or, at a minimum, not actively harmful. Accommodationists have no desire to deconvert Christians or other believers, but there’s a lot of room in the atheist movement for people like me, who want to change the minds of the other side and have grave doubts that mockery and disdain are the right tools for our goal.

    I have some agreement with Leah on this matter. I try and stay away from mockery and other such behavior, at least when interacting on a personal level with believers. Why? My goal when discussing religion with a believer is generally, A) To show by example that some negative things a believer may have been told about atheists are not true (at least in my case), and B) To provide an avenue for the believer to consider the atheist position. In most cases, I don’t find engaging in mockery to be conducive to either of these goals.

    On the other hand, on a non-personal level, I have occasionally written some essays that make some use of mockery, or more accurately parody – such as a piece about pets and the Left Behind book series. On the non-personal level, I think there is a place for it to accomplish my goals, in particular for someone to consider the silliness of a particular belief, without feeling like a personal attack is being leveled.

  • Rollingforest

    Well regardless of what Rieux meant, I think Kaelik does bring up an interesting point about how in our society if a woman or a gay man uses the word “honey” it is always assumed to just be an expression of anger, but when a heterosexual man does it, people jump toward assuming the worst about him, which, it should be noted, is a form of sexism itself. I’m glad to be on an atheist blog where there is actually intelligent discussion on these gender issues rather than the echo chamber that exists on some blogs I could mention.

    Though I must admit, society has brainwashed me with some of this prejudice. When I read that Yahzi’s post, I couldn’t help but picture him as a gay man ;)

    And so that I can claim to be contributing to the original topic, Rieux and others are right that mocking can be a very effective method for convincing those on the fence about an issue. But Leah is right that you won’t convert a single Christian through mocking. While I think that we should focus on the fence-sitters, I don’t think we should ignore those seemingly lost to religion. We might not be able to turn a Christian into an Atheist, but we have a shot at turning them into a Deist and I think that that is an improvement. Rather than wait for people to move onto the fence themselves, we should provide a nudge for those who are already religious. And the way to nudge them isn’t to ridicule them. First you must seem non-threatening. To do that, you must reassure them that you are open to becoming a Christian if they can prove it. Then ask them how they know that Christianity is right and other religions are wrong. If you put it in question form, they will not see it as an attack but just curiosity and will be more open to realizing the logical fallacies that they themselves are forced to point out when they try to answer your questions.

  • Yahzi

    I only said “Honey” because it was mocking. If Greta had been male, I would have said “Son.” When I am really into mocking mode, I speak in a Southern drawl. I don’t know why. I just do. Sometimes I even say “ain’t.” Probably because of Foghorn Leghorn. Damn, now it sounds like I’m mocking Southerners.

    But that thing you did? That jumping all over me because I said something that might have been sexist? That immediate calling me out on my bullshit? That was great. When we get people to do that whenever somebody says something religious, we will have won. That’s the goal. We need more of that!

  • Yahzi

    Also of course, the point of mockery is that it hurts. It’s not like you mock somebody and then your point is made. You mock them until they stop being mockable.

  • Rollingforest

    Um, so you think that we should “jump all over [people] because [they] said something that might have been sexist [or religious]“? So you think we should be in hyper-offended, the-evidence-be-damned, guilty-until-proven-innocent mode?

    Please no.

  • Miles

    I love how a third of the comments are about whether “honey” is a sexist label and what to do about it xD

    Their answers may be convoluted or unverifiable, but they satisfy the people in the tradition. It’s no good raising questions and smirking if you can’t rebut the next reply. When atheists overreach, they discredit our whole movement.

    I just want to echo “know your audience.” I like to think reason is my go-to approach, and insults and mockery a distant second, but I recognize that both have their place.

    Where I live in Arkansas most adults seem to find it unimaginable that anyone would find prayer offensive, not to mention they way every single tragedy / joyous occasion is marred by religious attributions such as “God works in mysterious ways” or “Thank God!” In my experience any objection is likely to be met with a haughty dressing down with the objection discounted and ignored unless the nonbeliever is willing to jump feet first into an hours long soul-sucking argument. On the other hand, you would not believe the occasional effectiveness of a bark of laughter at the idea of taking religion seriously, and it’s easier to move on from if it doesn’t go well.

    Remember the relevant audience in any public or semi-public debate is not the opposition, but the bystanders. Crowds are fickle and as easily won by first impressions as by rational conclusions. Of course I would prefer it if people were more rational, but they’re not, so I don’t see the point in wishing they were.

  • Jim Baerg

    Miles:
    Have you ever responded with something like “Odin bless you”?

    If so what was the response? How many Christians would regard that as offensive mockery?

  • AngryMan9000

    What I cant stand is militant atheists these collectivists assholes are giving atheists a bad name.

    What does it mean to be an atheist. There is only one thing that all atheists have in common we do not believe in spooks in the sky, that is it. I dont have to agree with anything else some asshole says, I dont have to adopt a set of beliefes because a few of them happen to agree. Atheism is freedom the freedom to allow the individual to decide what values they have (if any). Its to the point where atheists might want to differentiate ourselves from the collectivist bitches. I PROCLAIM MYSELF TO BE A FREE MAN ATHEIST, the only thing freeman atheists have in common is our beliefe that there are no spooks in the sky. I dont want to tell what to think, what to value, how to think I want you to do that on your own. Fuck them man.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Stop being so militant.


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