Do we care? Reflections on tone, intent, and my audience


People who know me, know that I am an intractable grouch. I am highly intolerant of other people’s opinions, and staunchly refuse to listen to people who have a different perspective on issues than I do.

People who know me well know that this isn’t even close to being true. I am perfectly happy to listen to dissenting opinions – it’s how I learn. All I ask is that you give me a reason to accept your dissenting opinion. I am not in the habit of simply granting opinions credence simply because someone put them to words. If you have some kind of justification, some evidence, some sophisticated bit of reasoning, to back up your position – by all means share it with me.

This is a propos of something, I swear. A few days ago, in a vain attempt to start an oh-so-much-fun flame war between myself and Daniel Fincke, I said the following:

Ugh. Oh Daniel… we are now in a fight. LET THE FLAME WAR BEGIN! Unless you’re planning on titling #2-#10 of this series “Tips for reaching out to religious believers: Don’t bother, it’s a waste of time.” Then we can totally agree.

I was referencing a post I wrote many moons ago outlining why I think it’s a waste of time and perfectly good consonants to avoid offending believers. They have demonstrated, on multiple occasions, how ludicrously thin their skin when it comes to what they brand as ‘offensive’. Any criticism, no matter how mild or factual, is seen as insult. As a result, I have made it my policy not to bother tip-toeing across eggshells to avoid causing offense.

A reader of Daniel’s showed up in the comments section of that post, and completely kicked my ass:

It seems to me I might be bypassing the point of your 2) and 3), in that they are not there to prove that not offending the religious is bullshit, but to show that Richard Dawkins isn’t “militant” – they are, that’s real militancy. Well, that’s unrelated to whether you should offend the religious – it makes no difference, the only questions are 1) is it effective and necessary 2) is it moral/reasonable, is that who we want to be? Neither of which your post addresses. You still owe me some cookies.

Now while it is unpleasant to have one’s ass kicked, it is also very informative. Because I was interested in refuting this criticism, I had to take the time to go over my position and evaluate it in light of this new line of questioning. As I did, I realized something that has caused me to revise that original stance (although not completely).

Whenever I talk about methods of increasing diversity within the freethinking/skeptic/atheist movement, I always predicate it on one assumption: that we recognize that diversity is a good thing. I have given my justification for why I think it’s a good thing to have many different voices be part of the conversation, but maybe some people disagree. If you honestly don’t care about diversity, or you don’t think it’s worth the effort, then just say so up front, and save us all the time of debating whether or not it’s “an atheist issue”.

While I was trying to craft my refutation, I realized something that made me more than a little uneasy. For the sake of argument, I mentally swapped “women” in the place of “religious believers”, and re-ran the tape. We shouldn’t reach out to women because they’re irrational and take offense at things that aren’t intended as such. Women complain about not being treated fairly, but we’re just holding them to the same standard that we hold all other people to – if they’re offended, too bad.

I really didn’t like where that thought took me. Even putting aside the obvious difference between the status of women vis a vis men, vs. the status of believers vis a vis atheists, it was an ill-conceived position that I wouldn’t tolerate for a second if it came from a “men’s rights activist”. Even if women are ‘too touchy’ (which I don’t think is usually the case, but even if it were), it is entirely within our grasp to find ways of making points without alienating a subset of our audience. Failing to do so is lazy argumentation, relying on innuendo and heuristic rather than the logic and reason we point to as the main tools in our arsenal.

The problem with my original stance on not offending religious people is that it is entirely orthogonal to Daniel’s post. His position begins with the assumption that one is interested in reaching out to believers. If we take that assumption as true (there are many atheist writers who are writing explicitly for a religious audience), then his points are all superb. My problem is that I don’t particularly care if religious people are offended by what I say, or are part of the conversation. They’re not who I’m writing for.

But that’s my problem. Not a problem with Daniel’s position. His ‘tips’, while completely valid, are useless to me simply because we do not agree on that basic, underpinning assumption. He shared in his reply to my comment that he has seen the consequences of failing to adjust one’s approach to the intended audience. I had to admit to myself that while there will always be some people who are looking to be offended, there are also those who are willing to put their beliefs under the eye of scrutiny, and that it is unnecessary to antagonize them through the use of confrontational language.

And so I have to issue a rare retraction of my previous position. It is not bullshit to avoid offending believers. It is a reasonable stance to take if you wish to establish dialogue that doesn’t immediately lead to hurt feelings and angry recriminations. It is, in fact, a sensible approach to not only keep believers themselves listening, but to help undermine the unreasonable yet popular perception that atheists are cruel tormentors of the beleaguered pious.

That being said, I’m not going to change my approach one bit, for reasons I will discuss in my next post.

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Comments

  1. says

    You say you’re not interested in reaching out to religious people, so this is not an issue for you. However, there’s another issue to be dealt with. That is, what is the purpose “reaching out”?

    The people who say don’t offend the religious people, don’t ridicule them, don’t insult them etc. just assume that doing so causes the religious people to permanently shut down and tune out and dismiss you, no matter what you have to say. This is not true. Ridicule and shame are some of the best and useful tools humans have to modify the behaviour of others. That’s why religions use them so extensively. Not only that, but when we have long-held beliefs and prejudices, polite conversation trying to persuade us differently is often more than useless. Sometimes we need to be shocked out of complacency in order to really consider some novel viewpoint.

    So if “reaching out” means getting along with religious people in a social context, sure, don’t insult them. If “reaching out” means getting religious people to reevaluate their beliefs and experiences, then sometimes (not all the time), being aggressive, challenging, and insulting can work wonders. It may not happen right at that moment, but they may think about it later.

  2. unbound says

    I think that we need to view these approaches (offensive, in-your-face and polite, thoughtful) as different tools to be used in different circumstances. Similar to leading people in a work environment, the carrot and the stick are considered, on average, to be equally effective. However, in practice, I’ve found that the different approaches are most effectively applied depending on the resource I’m dealing with.

    For those believers that are intelligent and believe just because they were raised that way, I think insulting will simply turn them off. Those are the people where using the methods Daniel Fincke describe will be more effective. You will be engaging them on a level that they will appreciate.

    For those believers that are perhaps not as intelligent and (more importantly) have taken a conscience step into religion (e.g. born-again), I think the insulting approach is likely to be more effective (for reasons Ibis3 describes above). Those people would more likely to be shamed into reconsidering their position…especially if there were multiple people ridiculing.

  3. Tom Clark says

    I’ve actually met plenty of Christians who are either not easily offended or can simply get over it. Unfortunately, these seemingly open-minded fellows are nonetheless impossible to convert, and, perhaps more annoying, almost exclusively male.

  4. Crommunist says

    I don’t think ridicule goes a long way in being convincing that your side is right – only that their side is silly. If you’re told that this is “the good news” and that people’s souls are reaching out for Jesus, and then someone says “Jewish carpenter zombie”, all of sudden you have to deal with a cognitive dissonance. They can force you to be introspective, which opens you up to the rational critiques. Then again, Christians (specifically) are told that they will be laughed at, which is armor against this kind of approach. Not sure what the Qur’an says, but there’s probably something similar.

    I rankle every time someone deputizes “intelligence” into the argument for why religious people believe. I don’t think they’re unintelligent, I think they’re non-intellectual, at least when it comes to their faith. There is a world of difference.

  5. says

    Insulting people is an abusive way to try to change people’s minds. I don’t care if it works, bullying should be beneath a rationalist.

    Pointing out what is funny in an absurd belief and laughing at it, when done right, need not be bullying, but something that helpfully effects a Gestalt shift. And deliberately signaling that you do not revere what the religious want you to, is an important part of expressing your atheistic conscience and of avoiding being coopted into fulfilling religious prescriptions about deference. And irreverence can also help send the signal that not everyone in the community reveres what has been sunk deep in a believer’s head to revere through communal pressure.

    And being rigorously rational and unapologetically atheistic and making no accommodations for falsehoods or superstitious reasoning are all necessary things to do in the fight against irrationalism and authoritarianism.

    But NONE of the above is the same thing as being an aggressive, insulting dickhead who bullies people. And once you become the latter, you’re basically no better a person and no more deserving of trust with power than your spiritual cousin, the religious fundamentalist.

    When we talk about “what works” the question has to be, what works for what? I am only interested in what works for actually BEING a rational, autonomous person who leads to the greater overall flourishing of humanity, not just at winning converts to my tribe by whatever irratioanlistic, heteronomous, and abusive tactic available.

    There is more to life than being right. And people who do not grasp that are wrong.

  6. unbound says

    To be honest, you are taking my term “not as intelligent” into a meaning I definitely did not intend. I agree that non-intellectual is a superior term for what I was attempting to describe.

    I personally do not think ridicule is a great approach overall (I prefer a more intellectual debate). But, as I thought I had pointed out in original response, there can be a point to using the tool. In a less intellectual debate, the tool of shaming may be more effective.

    Which leads me to my original point (that seems to be ignored in your response) that multiple tools used appropriately is likely to be more effective.

    If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

  7. Crommunist says

    Hahaha, every time I get a comment like this I think it’s spam that has somehow managed to leak through the filter. Very rare to get blanket praise like this. Thanks for the kind words.

  8. Sarah says

    “Insulting people is an abusive way to try to change people’s minds. I don’t care if it works, bullying should be beneath a rationalist.”

    This. So much This.

    “Pointing out what is funny in an absurd belief and laughing at it, when done right, need not be bullying, but something that helpfully effects a Gestalt shift.”

    But does it? To a theist “Everything just appeared, lol” is the funny part of your ‘absurd’ belief. Does that helpfully effect a Gestalt shift for you?

    The same applies to the atheist who thinks “Jesus came back as a zombie, lol” is the funny part of a theists ‘absurd’ belief.

    “When we talk about “what works” the question has to be, what works for what? I am only interested in what works for actually BEING a rational, autonomous person who leads to the greater overall flourishing of humanity, not just at winning converts to my tribe by whatever irratioanlistic, heteronomous, and abusive tactic available.”

    An admirable stance.

  9. says

    “Pointing out what is funny in an absurd belief and laughing at it, when done right, need not be bullying, but something that helpfully effects a Gestalt shift.”

    But does it? To a theist “Everything just appeared, lol” is the funny part of your ‘absurd’ belief. Does that helpfully effect a Gestalt shift for you?

    Insofar as one is committed to being a rationalist, then yes: when someone points out an unexamined premise, one should always pause to consider it.

    Insofar as a “gestalt shift” is merely a shift of worldview (and not merely considered on the a/theist spectrum), then yes: such a consideration will helpfully effect a gestalt shift (where ‘helpfully’ means ‘having a more deeply considered opinion’).

    The same applies to the atheist who thinks “Jesus came back as a zombie, lol” is the funny part of a theists ‘absurd’ belief.

    I concur, as per the reasoning I just outlined above.

    Now if you want to argue that ‘no religious people are rationalists’… I don’t see how that argument could possibly be made.

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