The One-Percent Difference

The One-Percent Difference February 3, 2016


I posted the other day on Facebook about Richard Dawkins being disinvited from NECSS for promoting a grossly sexist video, which provoked an onlooker to comment that he agreed with Dawkins and not with me. (It was a white man, if you wanted to know.)

Since I curate my Facebook wall and don’t care to share details of my personal life with people who hold such retrograde opinions, I unfriended him, which he apparently took as a grave insult. He sent me an angry, huffy message, then stopped by the comment section here to loudly announce that he would no longer be commenting here. He conspicuously repeated this announcement several times as if in the hope that I’d reconsider and beg him to stay. When that didn’t work, he flounced off with this comment:

I generally agree with 99% of what you say, but apparently you’re one of those guys who demands a 100% agreement rate.

I thought this was an unintentionally revealing sentiment, so I wanted to say more about it.

While this person and I agree on most matters, he disagrees with me about the wisdom of Dawkins’ promotion of callous misogyny.* But more importantly, he disagrees with me about how big a disagreement that is. He seems to think it’s a minor matter – no more than 1% of what I can or should care about – which is why he’s baffled and upset that I reacted strongly to it.

My response is that if you think something like this is a minor difference of opinion – that we can differ on this point, and yet our beliefs can still be 99% similar – then you haven’t understood me at all.

As it happens, I think this dismissive, minimizing attitude is exactly the problem. When it comes to sexism in the atheist community, the biggest problem isn’t the relatively small (but noisy and persistent) mob of screeching trolls and harassers. The biggest problem is the much larger bloc of people who don’t engage in such behavior themselves, but are willing to tolerate it, and who think that whether a person is sexist should form at most a very small part of your opinion of them. It’s the people who believe that if a celebrity author or scientist is effective at promoting atheism, that’s all we ought to care about, not anything else they say or do. (You may notice the analogy with the way that moderate religion can protect and enable dangerous fundamentalism.)

This ties back to what I’ve written about what is up for debate in the secular community. We engage in fierce give-and-take about a whole world of topics, and it’s right and proper that we should. But when it comes to equality and respect for our fellow human beings, there ought to be no question. If anything, we ought to consider that the highest priority, not an irrelevant 1% leftover that can be swept under the carpet.

I wouldn’t hesitate to say that a person’s moral outlook is more important than their philosophical worldview. I have more in common with an evangelical Christian who reads the Bible, believes in miracles and prays to Jesus for guidance, but who believes in justice and the fundamental equality of all human beings, than I do with an atheist who rejects the supernatural, adheres to science as the only way of knowing, but isn’t concerned about racism, sexism or other kinds of irrational prejudice.

As it happens, I don’t think these things are entirely unrelated to each other. I think belief in an unverifiable afterlife that supersedes this one in importance, a holy book larded with atrocities, and morality that emanates from the unknowable whim of a deity, will more often than not produce bad results. I also think the worldview which holds that reason is the sole way of knowing, that morality comes from what’s good for human beings, and that this world and this life are all there is, will more often than not produce good results. But, clearly, there are exceptions in both directions.

* For the record, Dawkins is now tweeting actual neo-Nazi propaganda. Granted, he didn’t realize the source, but when you can look at a neo-Nazi meme and think it makes a good point, that ought to be a hint that you need to engage in some serious self-reevaluation.

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