Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Don’t like my tone? Am I being rude?

One of the most common and loudest complaints about the arguments from authors and speakers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett is that they are bashing religion, they are rude, they are hateful, they are angry, they are encouraging intolerance, or they are prejudiced against religion. (Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion is being investigated in Turkey to determine if it is an attack on religious values, which could lead to the prosecution of the book’s Turkish publisher.) As far as I can tell, and I have read a lot of the reviews of their books, these objections to the “tone,” are just about the most substantial criticisms that anyone seems to have. Justifiably, Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett have expressed their frustration because these criticisms don’t have much to do with the substance of what they are saying. If one is presenting reasons for thinking that there is no God, what in the world does the “tone” that you use to do it have to do with the issue?

In particular, religious moderates and lots of otherwise very sharp intellectuals in the scientific and philosophical community have chastised these atheist authors repeatedly for their strident, passionate style. The typical criticism is that when atheist authors are rude or angry, or insinuate that believers are childish idiots, their project will backfire and they will antagonize more than convince. What these critics are actually revealing is not desire to help Dawkins and Harris be more effective or be able to reach a wider audience. They don’t really want the project to be successful at all. More likely these complaints belie the critics’ deep, uncritical affection for religion and their discomfort with anyone who scrutinizes it closely. Making these stylistic complaints seems to concede the content of the arguments by focusing instead on the form. Rather than argue, “yes, there is a God. Here are the reasons for thinking so. . . “ they complain that the atheist authors are smug, and have presented their case with contempt for believers. With so many of these evasions, it makes it hard not to have some contempt. That the atheist authors have been able to stir up this sort of criticism so often from the intelligentsia and nothing much more substantial is a really strong indicator that they are doing something right.

In a recent incident in Janesville, WI, a high school student ripped up a Bible in class as part of a speech he was giving in which he was arguing that the Bible was false. He was trying to demonstrate, among other things, that nothing supernatural would happen to him if he did it. Nothing supernatural did happen to him, but there was a firestorm of protests from the community. The student was suspended for a week. In conjunction with an article in the local paper, dozens of people expressed their outrage at how rude the student was, how intolerant, how arrogant, and how disrespectful it was to act so offensively.

Let’s be clear: a person’s right to free speech is not contingent upon their making their comments in a calm, mild-mannered, polite fashion. It’s a right to free speech, period. Aside from social niceties, a person is under no moral or legal obligation to express themselves nicely, with humility, or even respectfully. There seems to be a confusion for people who think that religious tolerance means never saying anything critical about religion or asking hard questions about it. Being tolerant of religion means that people have a moral and legal right to pursue the religious activities of their choice. It does not mean that they have a right to adopt any insane, unfounded, superstitious nonsense they want to and then expect the rest to remain completely silent about it. Freedom of religion does not guarantee immunity from reason and good sense. Having freedom of religion does not protect you from hurt feelings. Having freedom of religion does not protect you from disagreement.

When atheists are criticized for being angry, or when it is argued that being contemptuous makes the atheists’ argument less effective, the critics are missing the point. Whether those points are true, they only concern successful public strategy. They aren’t relevant to the question of reasonable belief in God. Furthermore, even if being strident or antagonistic will hamper one’s ability to convince, that does not impose any sort of moral obligation not to express oneself that way. You haven’t done something wrong to your targets by being mean. And it certainly doesn’t follow that theism is vindicated by the atheists’ being offensive.

Those people who will be offended would most likely have not been convinced anyway, and they don’t have a right not to be offended. There is no moral or legal right not to have your feelings hurt. What’s more obvious is that if you’re feelings are hurt or if someone’s tone seems intolerant, you’d be well advised to carefully consider the source of those hurt feelings inside of you. If you’ve got attachments to some beliefs that are so emotional that you can’t even listen to or read some words that challenge them without getting bent out of shape, then that’s a very good indicator that those beliefs are irrational and dogmatic and they need to be challenged. If there are people out there for whom the crucial difference between believing in God and not believing in God is whether or not the atheist presented their case politely, then they need to reevaluate their grounds for believing in God.

If you don’t like my tone, then you can go fuck yourself.


JP said...

"And if you don’t like my tone, then you can go fuck yourself."


Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. You hear from christians that non-believers, like you and I, will be judged by god, and sent to a firey hell for eternal torment. Now tell me, what is wrong with this picture?

Unknown said...

"science is interesting and if you don't agree you can fuck off"

Would make a great t-shirt/bumper sticker.

Anonymous said...


t.k.foster said...

Indeed, many of us also have no problem reading claims or books by the religious without trying to stop them from expressing their ideas. I have no problem with religious expressing their beliefs as long as it's constitutional, but when we constitutionally express our ideas, suddenly it's a problem?

Amol said...

Excellent article! I agree with you wholeheartedly.

Anonymous said...

Who draws the lines of atheist discourse, the theists who want to defeat us, or ourselves?

Freedom means that we can be rude to one another. So, is it ever justifiable to be rude?

Yes. We can be justifiably rude to any group of adults who believe in absurd/strange things.

Being rude can be constructive because many moderate believers, the ones we can still influence, will be embarrassed by the facts when we use sarcasm and wit ("rudeness").

Think of how comedians function socially -- they make fun of the absurd things in life and this acts as a social control or mode of social instruction for those with funny beliefs.

Yes, we want to be rude to people with bizarre beliefs because that is a highly effective way of marking strange beliefs as socially unacceptable. That is, we want to ostracize theism, we want to reveal how absurd it is and make it unsavory and difficult for people to support it.

We can't be deluded into thinking that we MUST be nice and polite to the people who causally talk about atheists burning in hell and being evil.

What does being nice get us anyway? A pat on the back from those who hate the heathens? No thanks. We need to show the world that theism doesn't deserve polite discourse -- it is just too embarrassing and undeserving of respect.

Magical thinkers should be mocked and therefore the rude tone is not only justified, it is necessary.

So yes, fuck anyone who doesn't like the tone. And fuck the theists who think they can tell us what a justifiable tone of discourse is -- theists, the group with the most unjustifiable tone in the history of the world.

Anonymous said...

Are we as atheists rude or just dumbfounded that—supposedly rationally people—believe in a supernatural force? I think we are more frightened that these people have positions of power and privilege that influences us all. If our tone is somewhat questionable, it is because we have difficulty considering that a person would in fact have a set of believes without proper, rational verification (beliefs that in fact control their actions and attitudes).

We are all entitled to our freedom of religion. When someone tells me that I do not have freedom of not believing in a religion, what is wrong with this picture? Do we all have to be believers to live in this country? Will we all at some point have to carry a religious identification stamp (right next to our pictures in our national ID documentation)?

Freedom of religion also includes freedom of not having a religious preference.

“Warning Will Robinson, theists are at your door.”

Anonymous said...

While some people may need to be told lighten up from time to time, the questions I ask myself after reading the post is whether one can one ever conclude that someone's tone is wrong.

I could generate a litany of all the horrible things (Jews or Christians or communists, put any name you want here) have done, but if I refuse to put in any good things, or refuse to put the horrible things they have done in context to horrible things other groups have done, then you could logically conclude that I hate (Jews, or Christians etc).

Adding even more horrible things to my diatribe against group X is not likely to convince anyone not already convinced. My failure to convince these people, could be read as an indication that these people are Jew-lovers or Christian-lovers (have an "uncritical affection" for religion X)

But it could also be read as an indication of my unreasonable hatred or prejedice against Jews, Christians etc.

Some things (Nazi's say) are so dispicable, that people cannot be prevented from expressing great emotion.

Does religion as a whole fall into this category? I don't think so, but Hitchens for one, probably does.

And baiting people as religion-lovers, and telling them to "go fuck" themselves does not seem to indicate that science and reason are in control of the debate.

So your tone in this post bothers me. You have provided a recommendation for just such cases, and I will take it into consideration.

Anonymous said...

"...I could generate a litany of all the horrible things (Jews or Christians or communists, put any name you want here) have done, but if I refuse to put in any good things, or refuse to put the horrible things they have done in context to horrible things other groups have done, then you could logically conclude that I hate (Jews, or Christians etc)."

The logical inference to be made about such a comment does not include how you feel about all Jews/Christians. It includes that you hate some of the horrible things that they have done. If you have a problem with a group of people like theists/atheists, which I cannot see possible since you cannot meet all of them, then your problem lies with the overall theory or way of living. I do not agree at all with certain religious life styles but I hate no religious person based on they're belief structure; nor any person for that matter. 'Those' Jews over there hit me with a baseball... if I were to sit there and bitch and moan about the baseball hitting me, them laughing, my head pounding, etc, you would logically conclude that I hate those particular people who happen to be Jewish. Lets assume that it is in the religion of those Jews to hit people like me in the head with a baseball and laugh whenever they see an opportunity. They represent a small group of jerks but at no point could I convince any reasonable person that my bickering and there baseball hitting asserts a universal generalization that I hate all Jews.

"Some things (Nazi's say) are so dispicable, that people cannot be prevented from expressing great emotion...Does religion as a whole fall into this category? I don't think so, but Hitchens for one, probably does."

So... religion does not fall into the category of the following: some things religious people say erk other people to such a point that that person cannot help invoke great emotion? That is simply not true at all. A religious person telling me that I am going to hell because I don't yadda yadda yadda or that I am going to hell because I do... yadda yadda yadda... this invokes great uncontrollable emotion in me not you? Let's simplify: "You do not deserve respect or life because you lack belief"... this I have heard from many religious people as I am sure you have heard a similar form of segregation. So saying that religion, unlike The Third Rich, is not justifying uncontrollable emotional responses in other people is madness.

Great emotion does not imply unreasonableness... fuck fuck ass... sorry I am out of control obviously, reason and science have somehow left my body and mind. I must be what those old fifties films show atheists like... a snarling beast yadda yadda...

People get pissed about things they care about like they're country, religion, beliefs, rights, etc. Perhaps it is not the best way to accomplish a conversational goal, but it sure gets the point across quickly and gets people active and less stoic.

"So your tone in this post bothers me. You have provided a recommendation for just such cases, and I will take it into consideration."

This could be equivocated with: "Go to Hell Steve!"... a lot less writing too... ahh the beauty of cursing and emotion... must be nice on that high horse of logging people's emotional responses as indications of they're character and dully acting the white night in the face of evil atheists... blahhhhh

Do you not like my tone too? Too much... I am a little vicious so I apologize for that much... that is all... enhance the emotion... fight the dull natured folk... they are trying to save our souls for the afterlife that may or may not be there... we are trying to save those lives that we know are there... viva ~GOD

Anonymous said...

My response was an examination of how I react to some writers like Hitchens, whose tone I find troubling. Dr. McCormick suggests that my reaction is the result of an uncritical affection for religion and that it is unreasonable for me to object to what I see as simplistic bashing of religion. (A sentiment I believe shared by reviews in The New Yorker).

My feeling is that Hitchens tends to write litanies of the evils of religion, and does not seem to consider questions of what good religions may have done, or what evil other things have done, or how much of the evil is rightfully attributable to religion.
Scott Atran is an atheist who has a much different view of religion, and also appears tired of simplistic "blame Islam" or "blame religion" arguments that are backed more by anecdotes than by data.
Jane Goodall's Gombe chimps seem to exhibit all of vengence and cruelty that many attribute to religion. So how much of what we blame religion for lies much deeper?

To me these questions can be asked and discussed without resorting to belligerent directives. Someone may always interpret a calm statement of disagreement as "Go to Hell Steve!" but there is still a difference between, "I disagree with you" and "go fuck yourself". I am not asking anyone to be unemotional or dishonest about their emotions, but rampaging through the streets is not in my mind a valid outlet for finding Danish cartoons insulting. And rampaging is in my view the ultimate result of trying to "enhance the emotion", rather than trying to enhance science and reason.

Nor have I argued anywhere that religious beliefs are true, or should be taught. Some false things like the tooth fairy, and Santa, really don't do that much harm. They may be silly but there is no reason to get too worked up about them.

Efrique said...

Kelly over at Rational Response put it very well when she said: Instead of harping continually on the use of the word "fuck", why don't we examine the truly offensive words like "should" and "ought"?

Prophet2k said...

A favoured saying of mine when responding to questions of negative tone in my openly anti-reliogious tirades is:

"Sometimes people need to be ridiculed to realize that they are being ridiculous"

Anonymous said...

great post!

i fail to understand why the believers do not see the obvious fact that religion is hoax.

Unknown said...

My favorite part of reading these articles is checking out the comments and watching angry theists get shot down, yet I think the "you can go fuck yourself" silenced any counter arguments. Disappointing and amusing at the same time