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. http://gazettextra.com/news/2007/dec/20/bible-incident-draws-concerns/
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.