A consensus statement on civility for argumentative atheists?

I’ve been thinking about the issue of civility a lot over the past few days, with my posts on the word “stupid” and my post on how to talk about Islam. (This last post was an extension of my previous discussion with James Croft here.) And it seems like a lot of other people have been writing about this issue lately, not just Dan Fincke but also Jerry Coyne, Russell Blackford, Kylie Sturgess, and Hemant Mehta.

I could spend a lot of time going over specifics, but I’m not sure what’s to be gained by spending a lot of time arguing over a lot of individual cases nobody outside the most dedicated followers of atheist blogs and organizations cares about. Instead, I think it might be helpful to try to say some things about civility that everyone in the discussion can agree on.

First, there’s nothing automatically rude about criticizing religion. As Greta Christina often says:

Religion is an idea about how the world works — and it’s just as valid to criticize it in public forums as it is to criticize any other idea. If you think it’s okay to criticize ideas about politics, science, medicine, art, philosophy, food, and so on… why should religion be treated any differently?

If you don’t agree with that, I’m not going to argue with you today. You simply aren’t the target audience for this blog post.

The next point I think we should be able to all agree on is that atheists are often unfairly accused of being uncivil. We’re accused of being uncivil for saying things that nobody would think uncivil if not for being aimed at religion. I’ve give a number of examples of this.

Now one of those examples at the links is Chris Mooney, and James Croft has quibbled with me there in the past, on the grounds that he thinks Mooney’s intentions were good. But even if Mooney’s intentions were good, even if Mooney didn’t mean to do it, I still think Mooney is guilty of having implied atheists were being uncivil for saying things that nobody would have thought uncivil if they hadn’t aimed at religion.

A couple of further points from my reply to James Croft are worth repeating here. First, on civility I said:

I recognize that it’s often a good idea to be polite, but that doesn’t mean we need to be polite 100% of the time. Sometimes, it’s worth trying to very gently talk believers out of their beliefs, but I think it’s important to sometimes be frank about the disturbingly delusional nature of many of those beliefs. I support having a mix of strategies.

I also don’t think any of the most prominent atheist writers are guilty of being uncivil in any sense which seriously hurt the effectiveness as communicators. In particular, I think it’s clear that Dawkins is a great communicator:

It’s clear that The God Delusion had an impact on a lot of people, not just atheists, but people who were previously religious or on the fence about religion. Dawkins has an entire section of his website where he posts the messages he’s gotten from people who left religion, or came out about their irreligion, as the result of reading his books. And Greta Christina has said The God Delusion turned her from calling herself agnostic to being an atheist activist. Greta’s such a great writer that this fact alone makes me glad Dawkins wrote his book.

James Croft, if I understand this comment correctly, agrees with me that we don’t need to be polite 100% of the time. I suspect the other people I’ve linked at the start of the post would agree as well, though hopefully a couple of them will chime in in the comments to either confirm or disconfirm that.

This is all pretty banal, I guess, and maybe some people will want to agree while saying I’ve left out something important. But I suspect many religious believers, and even a few atheists, would disagree with the things I’ve just said. I think that makes them worth saying (and it helps to say them without the baggage of more contentious claims.)

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  • Wowbagger, Titillated Victorian Gentleman

    Determining what is ‘genuinely’ uncivil, and what a person whose ideas are being challenged calls uncivil in the hope that those ideas will remain unchallenged is, of course, significant.

  • wholething

    I have read that brain scans show that when a person is asked about their opinion of a topic, a certain area of the brain beomes active. When asked about the opinion of a different person, a different part of the brain becomes active. When asked about God’s opinion, the area that becomes active is the one that becomes active when they think about their own opinion and not the latter.

    One’s religion may be a part of that person so what you say about the religion feels the same to them as if you said it about the person.

    That said, sometimes having such a thing pointed out as being stupid might be enough of a shock to help the person disassociate from the idea. But I think it would have to be followed up with the reason why it is stupid and not have it left as a mere epithet.

  • Decnavda

    My personal rule is: Respect the believer, mock the belief.

  • Kylie Sturgess

    Hi, you mentioned me on Twitter and requested a comment. I have in the past (and I think I’ll continue to do so) have emailed people who have commented on my site to ask for clarification about some things they’ve said. People sometimes fire off without thinking and appreciate a chance to have things not post.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Is that just additional explanation of your views, or do you want to talk about *this* in e-mail? I’d be happy to, if that’s what you want.

      • Kylie Sturgess

        No, no – I was just saying that I’ve dealt with quite a few misunderstandings (especially my own!) by not letting a comment go through unless I’ve emailed the person who posted it to be sure of what they meant and that they’re comfortable with it being posted.

        In fact (ironically enough) that just happened about half an hour ago – the commentator has discussed in emails, and will post a clarification as to what they meant. I even helped them with a few resources, which I think was the most useful part of the discussion, and something I didn’t really get from their original comment!

        So, emailing your commentators to be completely sure that they’re okay with having what they’ve said and are fine with it going through is not a bad idea at all.

        • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist


  • slc1

    Let’s not forget Larry Moran who also weighed in on this subject.


    • Kylie Sturgess

      That link brings up a good point about “who is my audience” – they say that their audience is:

      My audience is not the creationists I’m debating, it’s the readers who might not have made up their minds about Intelligent Design Creationism.

      I think that’s clearly going to have an influence on the kinds of comments that are accepted. Mind, in my comments policy, I do link to this:


      So, I like to think ahead of time of who my audience is, who they should be – and aim to have that as my goal. Maybe that’s preaching to the choir…

      …but seriously, within the last 48 hours, I have posted: a montage of gymnastic achievements over time, a concert of songs by a wonderfully geeky performer, a documentary on UK creationism and urged people to vote for some great Australian scientists to go to TED… so, if people want debates, they really should look elsewhere!


  • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    I can agree with the following three points you’ve made, which I understand to be the following:

    1. There’s nothing automatically rude about criticizing religion.
    2. Atheists are often unfairly accused of being uncivil.
    3. We don’t need to be polite 100% of the time.

    I’m not sure I agree with this one:

    I also don’t think any of the most prominent atheist writers are guilty of being uncivil in any sense which seriously hurt the effectiveness as communicators.

    This depends very much on who they are trying to communicate with and to what purpose. A lot of the confusion in these discussions comes down to two problems: A) No separation being made between the ethics of a communication strategy and its effectiveness (any strategy can be critiqued on either ground and the critiques are not the same) and B) No meaningful attempt made to identify a target audience and desired communicative goal. Without B, in particular, it’s very hard to make a judgment regarding whether “the most prominent atheist authors” have or have not hurt their effectiveness as communicators.

    What was Dawkins trying to do with his books? The answer to that question is required before we can judge the effectiveness of his strategy. I would say, though, that something like the post below is, in my judgment, unacceptable on ethical grounds regardless of its effectiveness due to the effect messaging of this sort (“Islam is such an unmitigated evil”) is likely to have on Muslims around the world, including in the UK and the USA:


    I would like to add an extra point that perhaps we can agree on:

    4. When challenged on the civility of their remarks, atheists frequently point to 2. in an attempt to justify genuinely uncivil discourse, as if every accusation of incivility is by default unjustified or irrelevant.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      I don’t really agree with (4). The fact that atheists are often unfairly accused of being uncivil does not show that accusations of uncivility are always irrelevant – but it’s reason to take them with a grain of salt, and ask how much we’d really gain in effectiveness by being very careful about civility.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

    I don’t like the word “polite”. I’m talking about being civil which to me is a matter of acknowledging basic respect and an order in which all are equal participants in the sense that they may all speak without being personally abused, threatened, harangued, demeaned, etc.

    It is not polite to ridicule people’s ideas but sometimes we can do that in a civil way, such as in a reductio ad absurdum or a satire. But it is civil to do those things as long as we respect certain boundaries of recognition of their basic humanity. I have written a lot on this. Here are some titles and a couple examples of debates I carried out with Christians in which I was not afraid to really push them in some abrasive ways that may not have been polite but were still entirely civil and impersonal. I know these are a lot of links but use the titles as a guide to find what you’re really interested in my thoughts on. The first link may be the most relevant.

    Not Everyone Has The Right To Be Offended By Just Anything

    My Thoughts on Blasphemy Day

    In Defense of Mocking and Embarrassing Religion

    In Defense of Richard Dawkins’s Reason Rally Speech

    What About Philosophical Christianity With Progressive Values? A Debate With Marta Layton

    “Should Catholic Employers Be Exempted From Paying For Health Insurance Covering Contraception?”

    My Philosophy on What the Best Freethinking and Free Speech Entail

    The Truth, The Whole Truth, And Nothing But The Truth–But With No Name-Calling

    Who Are You Calling Stupid

    I Don’t Really Give A Fuck About Tone, Per Se

    I Am A Rationalist, Not A Tribalist