If You Can’t Say Something Helpful…

Sometimes, when I complain about certain kinds of rhetoric used by atheist leaders, I think I’m not being clear enough.  When I complain about people who are tarred as ‘angry atheists’ I don’t have a problem with feelings of frustration and urgency — there’s a lot to be upset about.

So instead getting sucked into condemning anger — a rhetorical trick that delegitimizes any strongly expressed critique of the status quo — let’s say I have a problem with choler.

Choler was one of the four humors.  It’s also known as yellow bile and biliousness, wrath, and irascible bad temper are exactly what it was thought to produce.  What I’m trying to speak against is the practice of just venting our spleens and then patting ourselves on the back as though we made an impression or any kind of argument at all.  Let me give an example.

P.Z. Myers is an excellent biologist and is very good at presenting cogent debunkings of anti-evolution arguments, but his confrontational reputation and the attention it draws seems to push him to pick dumber fights.  I thought one of his recent twitter fights (pasted below) was a puerile waste of time, and then Myers compounded the fault by promoting it to his followers as though he scored a coup.

I’m not posting about Quinn’s tone because I don’t care about it.  If Christians want to be have unproductive  fights on twitter, I’ve got no skin in the game.  As an atheist, I am personally affected by the rhetoric used by the most prominent atheists and the expectations they create.

Although a reply to Quinn’s question was certainly in order, I can’t fathom what the point of the rest of the conversation was.  I doubt Myers thought that Quinn was being persuaded and the glib, character-limited back and forth doesn’t read as though it’s meant to appeal to fencesitters.  It seems like Myers is sticking with the fight for the pleasure of getting to call someone stupid in a public forum.  That kind of indulgence alienates the people who might otherwise be inclined to listen to Myers’s substantive arguments.

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  • If you think of the problem more as one of group dynamics and in-group/out-group, it makes more sense. I just posted about this over at the moralmindfield. (I know, I say that all the time, but it explains why I'm over here, doesn't it? Our interests overlap. Oh, and I actually link to your blog in this post.)http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/2011/06/14/internet-in-group-internet-out-group-and-virtue-ethics/The internet sorts groups by ideas instead of geography, which is actually much more natural to humans, I think. With regards to human nature, geography is more accidental, ideology more essential. PZ Myers is an ideologue and demagogue (how can he be both? because his demos and his ideos align well). He fascinated me for a while, then I lost interest. Don't look for reason, look for social psychology. Myers has made himself a caricature for the sake of the approval of his own followers. Virtue ethics gone bad.

  • Your post expresses exactly what I feel.

  • "F**k God", "atheist convention to applause", "admit it"These are loaded terms. Myers, having been on a trip to Ireland and heard about the devastation the Catholic church has caused, and continues to cause, in that country was probably tired of dealing with apologists for child rapists, their co-conspirators and modern day slave owners (The Magdalene Sisters).You can criticise his tone, his word choice and his decision to have the conversation in the first place, but he is human, he will make mistakes (whether this actually was one of them is an open question) but you are lacking empathy, or seeing it on only one side, with the situation here – as you were when he made his Eucharist statement/stunt.I don't mean to defend what he said (I agree with him but don't think a public forum is necessarily the best place for it) but I at least empathise with his frustration and anger.

  • You're really invested in the idea that there are a lot of disinterested "fencesitters" out there, aren't you, Leah? I mean maybe there's someone on this planet who doesn't have a pretty f*cking firm opinion about god, but I've certainly never heard from them.

  • Kogo: "I mean maybe there's someone on this planet who doesn't have a pretty f*cking firm opinion about god, but I've certainly never heard from them."Well, you wouldn't, would you? People who don't have a pretty firm opinion aren't really motivated to go around telling people what they aren't sure they believe. Personally, I don't weigh in on debates about gun control because I don't have a strong opinion on proper Second Amendment interpretation. Now, I also don't tend to read or listen to those debates because I don't have enough interest to form a strong opinion, so I don't know how much the religious fence-sitters are really being reached. I'm sure they're out there, though. In the U.S., 35% of people say religion isn't important in their daily life. If someone loosely identifies as a believer but it isn't important to their life, their belief is probably not all that strong.