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.)