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Nov 16 2012

Speaking for the Religious

When atheists criticize religion, we alienate the religious. The more harshly we criticize it, the more we alienate.

Right? That’s one of the pervasive tropes, invisible in its ubiquity. It is one reason given by some people who really want to do interfaith work and extend hands to the religious for telling us to hush up and tone it down.

We seem mean. We appear to be attacking people. Our anger and disgust are unpleasant, unattractive emotions. We’re pushing away the moderates who could be our allies.

But is it true? Well, let me tell you a little story.

Two days ago, I wrote a post about death and abortion. It laid out, without flinching, the ideas that allow someone who identifies as “pro-life” to watch a woman die in pain. Some of those ideas are religious. I did not steer away from them. I did not treat them nicely. In fact, I felt compelled to include a warning at the top of the post.

Then I shared the post on Facebook. A friend of mine commented on it. She was badly upset–not by what I said but by what had happened. I gave her a picture of a baby hedgehog.

Then she shared my post. She noted to her friends, “Before you flame me, I am a practicing Christian.” She, however, didn’t have words to express her pain and her outrage. I did.

Neither did another friend of mine, who is Catholic, though not actively involved in the Church. She was also upset enough to earn a baby hedgehog picture. For her, my post was an opportunity to direct a few harsh words at a church leadership that she feels is betraying her and other Catholics. It was an opportunity to dissent.

There was also some discussion of the difficulty of getting proper miscarriage care in the current anti-abortion climate, in case any of you still thought this was confined to Ireland. But that should be another post.

The point is that my religious friends were free and able to voice their dismay and anger over this because of something I wrote. They could do this because of a harsh criticism of religion, a harsh critism of the behavior of religious people, written by an atheist.

I don’t think this should surprise anyone, though it probably does.

Churches and religions claim an authority that comes from a god or gods. Almost none of them, in practice, contain any mechanism for challenging this authority. They contain instead many, many practices for reconciling one’s self to that authority. What will most believers try to do when they are upset with their church’s teachings?

That’s not to say that no religious person ever challenges their church. Plenty do, though that usually results in that person leaving the church, alone or with as many others as they can persuade.

It is to say that most believers have not cultivated a habit of dissent. Many have cultivated habits of acquiescence. Both make dissent harder.

That’s where we come in, possibly far more usefully than we will ever know. We have cultivated habits of dissent. We are free to point to corruption in any church. We are free to rage at how churches harm their followers and their societies. And we do.

They’re listening, you know. Believers of all sorts who are not completely isolated hear what we have to say. They hear our dissent, our rage, and sometimes it resonates with theirs. Sometimes it motivates them to speak.

When it does, it can be extremely powerful. “I am a believer, but my church has gone so badly astray that I recognize the moral authority of this atheist over that of my church.”  That is no small thing. Not for the believer. Not for the church. Certainly not for us.

It can’t really be ignored. In that situation, something will have to change, though not necessarily quickly. It won’t always be the church, of course. Sometimes the atheist in question will be sucessfully vilified or the believer shamed, though I believe these are less likely once this point has been reached. Sometimes the believer will break with the church. Sometimes they’ll stop believing.

This is not the first time something like this has happened with religious friends or relatives, just the most striking example. It will keep happening as more of us speak, as the religious people around us start to realize the sky won’t fall just because they listen. More churches and doctrines will be challenged, both by us and by believers.

Not only is that an outcome we want in terms of building alliances to fight the misuse of religious authority, it’s also helping believers do exactly what we tell them we want them to do. Taking strong stands like these, without regard for religious sentiment, helps the religious police religion. It helps them confront the most damaging parts of their own religions. The will is already there. We’re merely providing the means and the proof that it can be done.

So let us stop this characterization of criticism of the inhumanity of beliefs as something that puts us at odds with the believers who might otherwise be on our sides. It can happen that way, but it doesn’t have to. There’s nothing inherent in that strong criticism that makes it so. Even the harshest, least compromising criticism can actually bring us together on the issues that matter to us all.

Remember that the next time someone tells you to pretty it up or tone it down.

14 comments

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  1. 1
    aziraphale

    Good post. I totally agree with you as regards criticism of the failings of a church.

    However, I don’t think it’s constructive to say to a believer “the things you believe in are ridiculous and no sane person could believe them”. Even if they might some day come to agree with that, they are not likely to agree with it here and now.

    Or (a favorite in some quarters) to describe Christ as a Jewish zombie.

  2. 2
    Stephanie Zvan

    I don’t think it’s ever constructive to say things that aren’t true, and sane people believe all sorts of ridiculous things. Nor is “Jewish zombie” a criticism. Mockery has social uses, but criticism it isn’t.

  3. 3
    Stevarious, Public Health Problem

    Watch out! If you criticize ‘people who criticize atheists for criticizing the religious’, you’ll alienate them!

  4. 4
    Ophelia Benson

    I want a baby hedgehog.

  5. 5
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Yes, let’s.

    And to step a bit outside the immediate scope of the OP, in the spirit of criticizing atheists. Would the interfaith atheists who like to criticize those atheists who aren’t so interfaith-involved please go ahead and criticize the religious types who tell atheists, women, homosexuals – whatever people offend them – that they are dirt, going to be killed, or whatever. Please step up and criticize these rude, mean religious people with vigor equal to that with which you criticize atheists who say things you don’t like. Tell them to shut up, too. Or, conversely, you go right ahead and shut up and get on with that interfaith work to which you claim to be so devoted. Feel free to tell you religious partners how mean and awful those Other atheists are, just stop trying to engage us with your demands of shutting up.

  6. 6
  7. 7
    jose

    The rise of the Nones proves these last years of new atheism have not been harmful. People have not ran back to the church upon hearing harsh criticisms of their beliefs. The alienating thing seems to be a matter of anecdotes at best, no real effect.

  8. 8
    grumpyoldfart

    The point is that my religious friends were free and able to voice their dismay and anger over this because of something I wrote.

    But too gutless to take the initiative.

  9. 9
    dustinarand

    Hear, hear.
    One minor quibble. Language choice is important. Persuasion is like building a building. You have to lay a foundation and build from the ground up. You can’t start with the penthouse. Particular language may persuade or turn off your interlocutor depending on whether you have laid the necessary foundation first. I think in this case the foundation was laid for you in the anger and dismay people were feeling over Savita’s death. In the absence of such a crisis you would have had too tread more carefully lest your words put people off.

  10. 10
    shari

    uh, grumpy? Not sure why you used ‘gutless’

    I am Catholic, although that isn’t the church I attend anymore. Sharing and signing the petitions that arose from this tragedy – to get the barbaric laws involved repealed isn’t perhaps ‘gutsy’ but it’s a form of useful action.

    Writing a piece as powerful and eloquent as Stephanie’s post? (I also shared this) Not that good a writer (i have a few standards). Write one as powerful, and skip the eloquent? Don’t have her platform. Encouraging my catholic (and non) friends and family to read about this tragedy? Did that. Doing that.

    Already left the church proper, with no harrassment from family,or friends – they aren’t those kind of people.

    Trying to understand where I need to be more gutsy – looking forward to your response.

  11. 11
    DJMankiewicz

    Well said, and stuff like this really drives the point home. The biggest criticism I hear of us simply pointing these horrific cases out is that we are “using tragedy to push our agenda”. That is, we don’t “really” care about whatever tragedy we are speaking about, we’re just selfishly “using” it for personal gain, as though we’re happy when these things come along.

    To be sure, there ARE such individuals. To be sure, our side has accused the other side of doing exactly that, often justified from where I’m standing.

    However, the proper response to such cynical exploitation of tragedy isn’t to simply remain silent when those tragedies occur, to “wait until a better time” as some pundits would say (whether they’re aware of it or not, likely not, what they’re asking for would result in only bringing up the issue when no one cares to report on it any more). Self reflection is probably an important step to avoid this. One simple question is all one needs to ask themselves.

    “Is my bringing up this tragedy meant to address the tragedy itself, attempting to target the whys and hows to prevent it from happening again or raising awareness so that any policies that lead to it will stop, or am I bringing it up to aid a completely unrelated issue instead, just using it as a bullet point?”

    Okay I’m not succinct… That could be phrased more cleanly as “Is this to help my cause, or to help victims of this tragedy?”

    In this case, the answer is obvious. Targeting the religiously inspired structure in place that leads to doctors being forced to allow both to die instead of just one directly addresses the tragedy at hand and is entirely relevant.

    The issue is salient and obviously horrific to the average catholic, who really are chiefly convinced that anti-abortion is pro-life. Since they never thought about it beyond that, they’re going to be reached by the horror of the situation and demand that, if nothing else, exceptions are made. Sing this loud and clear. Most won’t be asking for truly legal abortions, but it’s a step in the right direction.

    This is also wholly apart from typical flinging of useless insults to the average religious person. Call their beliefs evil, call them wholly unfounded and irrational, and most importantly back it up (it’s not hard, we’re right). It’s not at all helpful to just toss out a call of “Monster!” at someone who’s got no frame of reference to understand what that insult is supposed to mean or refer to. So something like this? This gives exactly the context needed, so when you call the catholic inspired laws “monstrous”, they know “ah, they mean it’s monstrous because of things like this”.

  12. 12
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    I wished people would sometimes stop and read the hell lot of literature on politeness, theory of politeness and especially the criticism thereoff.

    And there aren’t enough baby hedgehogs in this world to cheer me up for what has happened in Ireland.
    And I’m not going to be polite and spare the feelings of people who still think there’s one redeeming feature of the catholic church. There’s no basis in reality and I’m not going to act as if there were and there could be some reasonable disagreement about that. And even if you believe in that bullshit and then come to the conclusion that even after everything, from the inquisition to the child-rape scandals and this it is more important to remain catholic because Jesus, they actually think that this is more important than the safety of women and children and I’m not going to be polite about that.

  13. 13
    dustinarand

    I’m starting to get seriously pissed off that the mainstream media is barely touching this story. Even the ladies at Slate’s XX blog haven’t written anything yet. I expected them at least to be all over this. Why the silence? I’m at a total loss. I know Amanda Marcotte for one reads these blogs because she wrote about the whole Freethought Bullies controversy a while back.

  14. 14
    jb

    dustin: I saw the story on CNN at least

  1. 15
    Darwin Harmless » Blog Archive » Alienating the Religious Right

    [...] Stephanie Zvan of “Almost Diamonds” refuted the following ubiquitous meme:  “When atheists criticize religion, we alienate the religious. The more harshly we [...]

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