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.

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