Though this be Contempt, Yet there is Method in it

The Reason Rally didn’t have a clear ‘ask.’ We weren’t calling on Congress to pass a particular piece of legislation or demanding a timeline for reform. As a result, news media has a lot of latitude to frame the message of the rally. And most of them took their cue from one of the best known speakers: Richard Dawkins.

Image via Daylight Atheism

USA Today’s headline was Richard Dawkins to atheist rally: ‘Show contempt’ for faith.  They didn’t include a block quote from him, but offered this summary of his speech:

Then Dawkins got to the part where he calls on the crowd not only to challenge religious people but to “ridicule and show contempt” for their doctrines and sacraments, including the Eucharist, which Catholics believe becomes the body of Christ during Mass.

A couple of other news sources picked up the story, and, absent the quote, a couple condensed it to Dawkins saying “show contempt” for religious people.  But even without this error, USA Today‘s excerpt isn’t a good representation of Dawkins’s speech.  The news outlets assumed that contempt was an end-in-itself — atheists don’t need a reason to vent their spleen.

Crisis Magazine did USA Today one better and chose one of Tim Minchin’s songs as the iconic image of the rally:

But as gloomy rain clouds hung low over the Washington Monument, the rally quickly degenerated into open mockery of religion and people of faith.

“F— the motherf—, f— the motherf—ing pope,” sang Musician Tim Minchin as he played profane songs on the piano for a laughing and cheering crowd.

I think both Dawkins speech and Minchin’s song are bad tactics, since, as demonstrated by the clips above, they’re easy to (willfully or accidentally) misinterpret as pure nastiness.  But both of these men were, in fact, using offence tactically, and I think their strategies deserve a fair explanation somewhere on the internet.

It is true that most of the lyrics of the Tim Minchin song consist of a particular expletive, but there are a few other nouns and adjectives in there, and you need to look at them to know what the song is about.

And if you look into your motherf—ing heart and tell me true
If this motherf—ing stupid f—ing song offended you
With its filthy f—ing language and its f—ing disrespect
If it made you feel angry go ahead and write a letter

But if you find me more offensive than the f—ing possibility
The pope protected priests when they were getting f—ing fiddly
Then listen to me motherf—er, this here is a fact
You are just as morally misguided as that motherf—ing
Power-hungry, self-aggrandised bigot in the stupid f—ing hat

This isn’t profanity for its own sake.  Minchin is contrasting the visceral reaction we have to obsene language with the more muted reaction we may have to the sexual abuse of children when we’re only seeing it as another story in the newspaper.  I doubt this song is very effective, though, especially as these are the final two stanzas, and I expect most of the people Minchin is ostensibly trying to reach have turned off the song after a maximum of three lines.  You can call the song ineffective or inaccurate, but it’s not simple potty humor and indulgence.

Dawkins was also after something more substantial than thumbing his nose at Catholics.  He was recommending that atheists be contemptuous of specific religious practices and doctrines to put pressure on people who have a social tie to religion, but don’t actually believe its truth claims.  If I were rephrasing his speech, I would have said:

If you have friends who are religious, don’t be hesitant to ask them if they really believe some of the factual claims that their church makes, especially if their actions diverge from what their church requires.  People claim it’s not polite to talk about religion, so your friends may see your questions as confrontational.  Try to talk the way you would in any non-religious circumstance and ask questions.  “Why do you believe…”  “I don’t understand how belief X and action Y fit together, can you explain?”  “Do you think you’ll have to choose between X and Y?  How will you decide?”

Which is more moderate sounding, but still has basically the same goal of getting people to confront contradictions and blind spots in their worldview.  As usual, I think that aggressive and contemptuous language is more for our own indulgence than the good of our interlocutors.  It’s possible to be aggressive, confrontational, and compassionate.

If the news media didn’t even acknowledge that Dawkins and Minchin were trying to persuade, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the press tended not to talk about why these speakers felt the problem was urgent enough to merit shock tactics.  Atheists sometimes get pegged as pedants.  We’ve got such an intense love for abstract Truth that we have to barge into other people’s perfectly nice lives to harangue them.  And I’ll admit I do this sometimes.

But the other reason we’re aggressive is because false beliefs harm people.  That’s part of how we know they’re false — they don’t match up to the world we observe and the discrepancy in your worldview means your actions can’t sync up correctly with your desires.  Greta Christina just wrote a whole book on the topic (Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless) and a recent link from her fellow Freethought Blogger J.T. Eberhard has a good case in point.

A mother in Texas slit the throat of her 5-year-old child because she believed he was possessed by demons.  I’m not arguing that this is a necessary consequence of religious belief or a likely one and I’m not commenting on the woman’s mental state.  The only point I want to make is, in our culture, it’s acceptable to believe demons exist and that they can possess people.  If it weren’t, your belief that your child is possessed is a red flag to you and to your friends long before you decide how to deal with the problem.

If possession is real, than this mother’s attack on her child is deeply sad, but more harm would be done if ordinary people weren’t vigilant against demonic attack.  This tragedy is collateral damage.  If demons don’t exist, we’re all better off with this belief rooted out.  The false religious belief may only serve as an accelerant to a different problem (the misogynistic parts of Islam are in a feedback loop with misogynistic culture generally), but we’d still be better off without it

When Dawkins and Minchin look too angry, it’s because they see a lot of ‘nice’ Christians as providing cover for false religious beliefs that are harming people directly or aggravating other harmful desires or beliefs.  I still think a ‘contemptuous’ strategy is counterproductive, but it’s wrong to cite them without acknowledging that their rhetoric is strategic or discussing what it’s meant to oppose.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • thomas tucker

    Well, look, atheists have harmed people too. Some of the bigest atrocities of the 20th century wer committed by atheists. So, I don’t think it is a question of disabusing nice people of what they believe simply because non-nice people (those who slit the throats of children, or those who send millions to the Gulag) with the same religious beliefs or lack of beliefs cause problems. I think what is most important is that we treat each other nicely and with respect, and that means not ridiculing their religious beliefs or lack of beliefs.

    • Jay

      This whole “atheists hurt people too — look at Stalin!” line sort of misses the point. Yes, Stalin did terrible things, and yes, Stalin was an atheist. But there’s no suggestion that he did what he did because he was an atheist. Stalin also thought 2 and 2 made 4, but nobody thinks that mathematical realism had anything to do with Soviet atrocities. Likewise with atheism — his lack of belief in supernatural deities had nothing to do with why he did what he did. You might as well say that both Hitler and Stalin had mustaches, so that’s the real problem. By contrast, it is quite clear that many, many people have done and continue to do terrible things to other people specifically because of their religious beliefs.

      Of course, just because people do terrible things to others because of religion doesn’t by itself condemn religion. Maybe some religious beliefs are actually true, and the problem is just that lots of people get it wrong. But Leah’s point is that if non-theism is correct (that is, if the probability that deities exist is so low as to be not worth considering), then religious belief is unlikely to result in harmless error. In fact, we have strong reason to predict that people will hurt themselves and others, in more or less obvious ways, if they run around believing false things about the nature of man and the universe. As such, religion deserves to be mocked where the mocking can be expected to expose people to how ridiculous these ideas really are.

      • http://blogs.forbes.com/alexknapp Alex Knapp

        “Yes, Stalin did terrible things, and yes, Stalin was an atheist. But there’s no suggestion that he did what he did because he was an atheist.”

        The Bible says ‘Thou shalt not kill’ – but I think we can agree that the Crusades had, in part, a religious motivation. Same thing with Communism, which was an explicitly anti-religious, atheist movement.

        Or to put it another way, Hitler being a vegetarian doesn’t mean his vegetarianism is to blame for his atrocities. But Stalin’s atrocities WERE motivated by his Communism, and Communism is militantly atheist. So I think it’s fair to say that his atheism was far more central to his actions.

        • anodognosic

          I’m somewhat torn on this argument. I see your point, Alex, and it’s plenty clear that atheists are capable of ideologically-motivated atrocities, so atheism is no guaranteed protection against them. Atheism per se, however, is not an ideology, just a proposition, and as such, you can’t lay the blame directly on its doorstep.

          You can draw a certain kind of equivalence between that and believing in god: it’s the added-on ideology that motivates atrocities, because belief in god is also just a proposition. And to that extent, I do agree with you. There are believers and believers, just as there are atheists and atheists, and both kinds have, historically, been to blame for atrocities.

          But here’s the rub, where I may diverge with you: Communism, as an ideology, is effectively dead among English-speaking atheists. Atheists can and do drop failed ideologies, and just about all of the current crop have no Communist inclination whatsoever. To some extent, you can say the same about the religious, but only to some extent, because each of them shares a holy book with every one who has committed an atrocity in its name. People have found motivation in the Bible (Jewish and Christian) and the Koran for doing terrible things.

          As as much as you might claim that they misinterpreted or distorted the true meaning of the religion, there is no obviously correct interpretive framework. I’d go further, and say that certain portions of holy books do in fact exhort people to do what today would be considered terrible things–I do believe, for instance, that the Crusaders had greater justification for their actions in the Bible than Stalin had in Marx’s ouvre. By insisting on the holiness and–for those who do–inerrancy of holy books, believers are in fact providing cover for their more extreme elements in a way that atheists are not for, say, Stalin’s crimes.

          • http://blogs.forbes.com/alexknapp Alex Knapp

            I don’t totally disagree with you. But I think the broader point is: humans will commit atrocities, and rationalize them however they feel like. An atheist prone to commit atrocities will find a reason to in his ideology. A religious person prone to atrocity will find justification in theirs. It’s a mistake to think that ideology leads to bad things. It’s more accurate to say, “people do bad things, and use ideology to justify them.”

          • anodognosic

            True, to a certain extent. The difference is the existence of a holy book, specifically a holy book that, in a straightforward reading, justifies genocide and slavery. Even if not all interpretations of Christianity are not equally valid (I’m convinced, for instance, that believers in the rapture have tenuous evidence for that belief at best), a well-meaning reader of the Bible can still come out with the impression that Yahweh smiles on genocide and slavery. And even if this reader may be too nice to actually kill and enslave people his or herself, I’ll bet he or she would be more willing to tolerate someone else committing a biblically-sanctioned atrocity.

  • Iota

    “If possession is real, than this mother’s attack on her child is deeply sad, but more harm would be done if ordinary people weren’t vigilant against demonic attack.”

    The Catholic Church appoints exorcists (which indicates demonic possession is one of the things the Church believes may happen) but killing anyone is NOT a solution (so far as I understand, it is also normal to refer anyone who seeks the assistance of an exorcist to psychotherapists first). So no, ordinary people being vigilant against demons by means of knives is not an option…

    So I assume you are making one more assumption in that sentence, that you hadn’t verbalized, e.g.: “and vigilance against demonic attack might or even should involve knives”.

    Of course you do say that if the society hadn’t believed in demonic possession “your belief that your child is possessed is a red flag to you and to your friends long before you decide how to deal with the problem.”

    But that presupposes there wouldn’t be some other thing that could serve as an excuse for a mentally unhinged person. Would it be any better if the mother decided that her child needed to be killed because it was controled by aliens or was a robot created by the Illuminati? NO. The child would still be dead. Which would be just as tragic. And, in those particular cases, targeting religion as the source of the problem would be pointless.

    And, unless somewhere along the way the word “atheist” started meaning “rational”, I see no reason why an atheist (a person who doesn’t believe in God, without any other qualities being specified) couldn’t believe in alien abductions, the Illuminati making baby robots or some such.

    Heck, there may be even reasons that could have basis in fact but would still be unethical – what if, by the time the baby was 5, the mother turned into a fervent believer in eugenics and decided her child has to be sacrificed to the higher good of the human race (because it’s got type I diabetes, which seems partly hereditary, and just sterilizing the child would be more inhumane)? It’s not like we – humanity – haven’t collectively done things of this sort…

    On a different note:
    “But the other reason we’re aggressive is because false beliefs harm people.”

    Assuming that’s true – do you really seriously believe you could make people drop all of their false beliefs? I could, purely theoretically, imagine a completely atheist world (although I wouldn’t want to live in one, for obvious reasons). But all of humanity dropping all of its wrong beliefs? I.e. all people suddenly becoming “fully “rational” in the “analytical thinking, always apply Bayes’ theorem” sense? Not to mention you’d fisr have to make sure you don’t transmit false, i.e. harmful, beliefs to others…

    If uou don’t think that’s a realistic goal, what would yousettle for instead?

    Which reminds me of this: “How does it feel to be wrong? – from 04:05 onwards, if you don’t have time to watch all of it.

  • anodognosic

    “Would it be any better if the mother decided that her child needed to be killed because it was controled by aliens or was a robot created by the Illuminati?”

    The point is that these, being fringe beliefs, would not be actively encouraged or have tacit approval of a significant number of peers, and might very well cause said peers to intervene when such paranoid obsessions become apparent.

    • deiseach

      Perfect example of what you say is the Bridget Cleary case; it is a 19th century case where a man brought about his wife’s death because he believed she was a changeling left by the fairies (it’s often referred to as a witch-burning but that’s incorrect as the Irish belief was not in witches per se in the same sense that the Continental witch-trials did, but rather in ‘wise women’ or ‘quack doctors’ who were men and women with cures and knowledge often said to be obtained from the fairies, not from deals with the Devil).

      The culture of the society at that time and place where such belief was present meant that the neighbours and family did not intervene, but what I would like to emphasise is that this was not just in opposition to rational belief of the time, but also to the official religious faith which these people were part of, Roman Catholicism. The local priest would have told them that belief in fairies or changelings was nonsense, as much as a doctor or scientist would have done, so the folk cures and folk practices of getting his wife back from the fairies was all done by Michael Cleary and the neighbours and family members not as part of religious practie but as folklore cures.

      I think myself the man may have been suffering from Capgras delusion but as you say, the real harm was the wider society’s acceptance of the validity of such beliefs. However, in this instance, if they had been more strictly adherent to their religion, they wouldn’t have carried out these pishogues, as their religion specifically forbids such practices:

      “2117 All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others – even if this were for the sake of restoring their health – are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another’s credulity.”

      To you, belief in God may be the same thing as believing in fairies, but not all beliefs are the same thing to believers.

    • Iota

      “The point is that these, being fringe beliefs, would not be actively encouraged or have tacit approval of a significant number of peers, and might very well cause said peers to intervene when such paranoid obsessions become apparent.”

      Actually…. belief in alien abductions or in Illuminati (not to mention Illuminati robot babies) is, thankfully, fringe NOW, in most communities. But notice those communities have other epistemologies which prevent them form believing in alien abductions or Illuminati spy robots. Not necessarily just the scientific-materialistic worlview…

      That relates to my second question to Leah – whether it is reasonable to expect that, simply by ousting religion/theism*, you permanently increase people’s “rationality”. Or do you, instead get people who believe in Area 51 experiments, New Age energy, homeopathy, the eugenic imperative and other stuff (possibly not invented yet), just without the God bits…?

      After all, atheism being just the proposition that there is no God ( = there are no gods), a person who specifically doesn’t believe in a God/gods, but is a member of an UFO cult would be an atheist (since they don’t believe in gods, just in aliens). Or am I missing something?

      If you think you permanently get more rationality simply be decreasing theism (i.e. specifically belief in God/gods), could you explain why?

      * Yes, I realize it’s possible to split religion from theism and strech “religion” to make it cover all tings science (or a particular atheist) disagrees with (which is, I think, what happens when people say there are UFO religions). But I think that’s just playing semantic games.

  • @b

    >>I expect most of the people Minchin is ostensibly trying to reach have turned off the song after a maximum of three lines (Leah)

    Wait, surely the goal of The Pope Song (or Dawkin’s ridicule) isn’t to change minds.

    That song is comedy, it’s for those who aren’t identifying as Catholic (it says disrespect is okay, defending the Church instead of those in the pews is morally bankrupt). Minchin is finding his audience in the low hanging fruit of (young) non-believers. His approach won’t change the minds of the devout inner-circle (science says backfire effect).

    I assume Minchin (also Dawkins) accept the charge that adopting their Science Vs Religion framing has a polarising effect. That seems like an intended effect. They’re urging their audience to pick a side. They’re speaking to the quiet middle. Because our leaders’ religious beliefs have real-world consequences for citizens, including the non-religious.

    Lucky rallying the troops (offering them an identity) is a lot easier than crafting the precise rhetoric that can toggle someone’s prevailing belief. Let alone a belief tied to one’s religious identity and their God. That’s science fiction. For now.

  • deiseach

    I await Mr. Minchin’s next song about the role of teachers’ unions in protecting abusive teachers.

    Anyway, it looks (from this map) as if the best state to be an atheist/agnostic/unafilliated is Colorado, where this group is in the majority at 29%! (Next largest group is Evangelical Protestants at 23%). Everyone move to Colorado, the most rational (by this measure) state in the U.S.A.?

  • deiseach

    Damian Thompson would agree about the scandal of “a lot of ‘nice’ Christians as providing cover for false religious beliefs that are harming people directly or aggravating other harmful desires or beliefs” where belief in possession leads to violence.

    Rooting out these beliefs can only be good, but by the same token, there is a difference not just of degree but of kind in how different cultures see similar beliefs; for most Western Christians, the reaction to “I think my child is possessed” would not be “Better sharpen the carving knife, then!” but “Bring him or her to the priest/minister!”

    I would also like to see rooted out the impulses that make parents kill their children, but I fear that this is a bit more complicated than the simplistic notion I’ve seen elsewhere about “Religion causes everything bad” – even atheists can become mentally ill, after all.

  • Andrew

    Catchy tune. So concerned about the children; I’m assuming that the flipside of the 45 is aimed at the president of the NEA (knowing that abuse cases within the Church are paled by comparison to public schools).

    If not, and not in the true interest of protecting children, it’s hate. And cheap. And he should keep singing – nothing will boost the numbers in the pews like this kind of stuff.

  • DeoDuce

    Thanks so much for this post (and your whole blog!!!). I am Catholic and a lot of what has been said by atheists like Richard Dawkins disturbs me, but your posts are always very reasonable and charitable while remaining completely faithful to your views. This is where I come when I want a first-hand look at atheistic views without all the hatred.

    God Bless!

  • Proxer

    “…aggressive and contemptuous language is more for our own indulgence than the good of our interlocutors. It’s possible to be aggressive, confrontational, and compassionate.”

    It’s possible, but is it always necessary? Can we not be contemptuous of beliefs? What about victim-blaming, or holocaust-denying?

    This argument seems like a form of tone trolling. Greta Christina points out in her book that one of the things that Atheists are (rightly) angry about is the idea that religious ideas “get a pass” in the marketplace of ideas:

    “I get angry when believers treat any criticism of their religion — i.e., pointing out that their religion is a hypothesis about the world and a philosophy of it, and asking it to stand up on its own in the marketplace of ideas — as insulting and intolerant. I get angry when believers accuse atheists of being intolerant for saying things like, “I don’t agree with you,” “I think you’re mistaken about that,” “That doesn’t make any sense,” “I think that position is morally indefensible,” and “What evidence do you have to support that?””
    http://bit.ly/HpJYGZ

    I think that Tim Minchin and Richard Dawkins are being aggressive about refuting that fallacy, and their strident rhetoric is intended both to be attention-getting (see: raise awareness of the fallacy), and to convince a specific audience that it’s not true. (mostly non-believers or people with doubts that have bought into the idea that religious beliefs are beyond criticism, let alone contempt)

    The fact that this aggressive rhetoric is ineffective with a larger audience doesn’t make it strictly indulgent or even “something to be avoided in all cases”.

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