Where does this idea come from that debate, expressing disagreement, saying “I really think you’re mistaken about this,” and making a case for why you think you’re right, are somehow acts of disrespect, and intolerance, and even violation?
We’re not talking about expressing disagreement at Thanksgiving dinner here; or ranting about it to people you’ve buttonholed at parties; or screaming it into bullhorns on the street. We’re talking about expressing it in legitimate public forums of discussion and debate: forums that people are free to listen to or not, as they choose. Where did the idea come from that this is an act of ugly, dogmatic bigotry, a flatly unacceptable part of modern civilized conversation?
I’ve been in a number of debates on Facebook lately (btw, if you’re on Facebook, friend me!), with several Wiccans, neo-pagans, New Age Christians, and other practitioners of woo spirituality. And I’ve been running into a baffling new version of the “Shut up, that’s why” argument — one that basically says that any attempt to persuade someone that you’re probably right and they’re probably mistaken is a form of bigoted intolerance, and a slippery slope to violent oppression.
When it comes to religion, anyway.
It’s a trope that says, “All experience is subjective, and therefore all experiences are equal and have to be treated with equal respect.” Or, rather, “All religious experience is subjective, and therefore all religious experiences are equal and have to be treated with equal respect.” It’s a trope that says, “It’s okay to share your thoughts on religion… as long as you don’t disagree with anyone else’s, or try to persuade them that they’re wrong.”
And it’s driving me up a tree.
I’ll give the devil its due: Of all the pieces of armor in religion’s armory, this one is uniquely effective. How do you debate someone who doesn’t value debate? How do you present evidence to someone who doesn’t value evidence, who values personal subjective experience over rigorously tested reality? How do you persuade someone who thinks that persuading people is horribly ill-mannered at best and abusive at worst? How do you engage with someone who thinks it’s okay for people to express their opinions… as long as they don’t commit the appalling faux pas of backing up those opinions with arguments and evidence? How do you make a case with someone who thinks that the very act of making a case makes you a bad person?
I’m not sure who I’m talking to in this piece, as anyone who holds this view is by definition not going to be interested in my arguments, and probably won’t have even gotten this far. But… well, I have this idea in my head, and it’s going to keep buzzing around there until I get it out. So here goes.
First of all: There’s a niggling little problem with the “All religious beliefs are subjective, and we have to treat them all with equal respect” trope. And that’s that it’s simply not true.
I don’t mean it’s not true that “all religious beliefs have to be treated with equal respect.” (Although it’s not.) I mean that the people espousing this view do not actually and consistently hold it.
Of course the New Agers and progressive Christians think some religious beliefs are better than others. They think the belief that the Sun orbits the Earth is wrong. They think the belief that humanity and the universe were created 6,000 years ago by a jealous and vengeful God is wrong. The think the belief that homosexuality is a disgusting sin that will send the sinners straight to hell if they don’t repent is wrong.
And they definitely think their idea that conflict over religion is bad, and that all subjective experiences of religion are equal, is right. Every time one of these supposedly “accepting of all world views” folks tries to convince me — I repeat for emphasis, convince me — that the attempt to convince other people of things is disrespectful, I want to bash my head against the wall. What part of “self-contradiction” don’t they understand?
More importantly: There’s a fundamental logical problem with the “You can share your ideas… but you can’t disagree with anyone else’s” trope. That problem is this: What if your idea is, “I think this idea is mistaken”? What if your idea is, “This idea is directly contradicted by the evidence”? How are you supposed to express that idea? Why is it okay to express any and all ideas and experiences — except for that one? Why do all experiences have to be respected… except for my experience that the universe is almost certainly an entirely physical entity, and that said view is the one that’s best supported by the available evidence?
How is it respectful of all religious viewpoints to shut down this one?
How is it respectful of all religious opinions to shut down the opinion that religion is mistaken?
The people who use this trope often say that they want to foster communication and connection. “Connection” is almost a sacred word for them. Connection with other people, with nature, with the universe, with the Great Animating Spirit or whatever immaterial entities they believe in, is supposedly one of their highest priorities.
And I’m sure they’re sincere. They sincerely think that that’s what they want.
But that’s not what they’re doing.
For one thing, they’re shutting out basic realities about the universe. They claim to want connection with all reality… but in practice, what they’re doing is placing their own subjective experience of reality over reality itself. They claim to want connection with the universe… but when presented with evidence about that universe that contradicts their beliefs, they cover their ears and call the people presenting the evidence “intolerant bigots.” They treat the world inside their own head, their own beliefs about the universe, as primary… and shut out what the actual universe, through evidence, is saying about itself.
And, of course, they’re not just shutting out the universe. They’re also shutting out anyone who disagrees with them.
Which, of course, is exactly the point of the exercise. The point of the “Disagreeing with religious beliefs is intolerant” trope is to shut out people who disagree with their particular beliefs.
I mean… if your idea is strong and good, why would you be so vehemently opposed to debate about it? If your idea is strong and good, why would you treat the very notion of debate and disagreement as ill-mannered at best and a brutal violation at worst? If your idea is strong and good, why would your response to someone trying to convince you otherwise be to shut that person down as fast as you can?
As Ursula K. LeGuin said in The Dispossessed, “The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.” Ideas that demand to be treated like delicate hothouse flowers are ideas that make me immediately suspicious.
Now, I get that there’s more going on here than just your standard, “I don’t want my religion to be criticized because I know it can’t stand up.” I do think that’s a lot of it… but I also think it’s more complex than that.
For starters: I think that within this circle of ecumenical, “all religions are getting at the truth in their own way,” “we’re fine with people of different faiths as long as they’re fine with our faith” believers, the main context they have for people outside that circle is intolerant fundamentalism and theocracy. The main context they have for people who criticize other people’s religions and argue that they’re mistaken is the religious right in America, and Islamic extremists in the Muslim world, and so on. They just don’t have a context for people who think that other people’s religions are mistaken… and are nevertheless passionate about the right to religious freedom. They just don’t have a context for people who spend a significant amount of time and energy trying to convince others to change their religious beliefs… and are trying to do it, not by law, not by force, not by bribery or intimidation, but by reason and evidence and persuasion, in public forums devoted to debate, and in private conversations with people who have expressed an interest.
So atheists — or at least atheist activists, atheists who make arguments against religion and try to persuade people that it’s mistaken — automatically get slotted into the “intolerant fundamentalists who want to force everyone to be just like them” camp. That’s the only context the ecumenical New Agers have for people who strongly disagree with other people’s religions. So that’s the context we get stuck in.
Closely related to this is the “slippery slope” argument. Humanity has an ugly history of religious bigotry and oppression, the argument goes; so that makes religion off-limits for criticism, since criticizing religion is a slippery slope leading to hatred, brutality, and tyranny. And while I disagree strongly with this conclusion, I can certainly understand the reflex. Again, if your only context for “people disagreeing with other people’s religion” is warfare and theocracy and concentration camps and so on, I can see how you might have a powerful revulsion towards anyone criticizing religion.
Of course, the problem with this “slippery slope” argument is that humanity also has an ugly history of bigotry against atheists and silencing atheists. And nobody making this argument has yet explained to me why that particular slippery slope isn’t worth worrying about. Nobody has yet explained to me why my attempts to persuade people that religion is mistaken are a slippery slope towards violent and bigoted religious oppression… but their attempts to persuade me that it’s wrong to criticize religion are not a slippery slope towards the violent and bigoted silencing of atheists. Nobody has yet explained to me why religious beliefs — alone among all ideas in the world, alone among the many types of ideas that have traditionally been subject to bigotry and suppression — should be immune from criticism, because that criticism will inevitably lead to the bad place. The thing about “slippery slope” arguments is that they’re notoriously poor: people tend to argue “X will lead to Y” when they agree that Y is bad but disagree over X… and can’t make a good argument against X.
Then, of course, some people are just very conflict-averse. There are some people who don’t like debating their ideas… simply because they don’t like debating. (Although if that’s what’s going on here, I don’t understand why they don’t simply ignore the debates, instead of trying to stop other people from having them. And when people get seriously aggro and combative, to the point of being outright venomous and nasty, all in defense of respect and tolerance and a “live and let live” philosophy… well, that definitely makes you wonder.)
So yes. All that is going on. But it really is beginning to seem like the main motivation behind “It’s always disrespectful to say a religious belief is mistaken'” is the same motivation behind all “Shut up, that’s why” arguments. It’s because on some level, the people making the argument know that they don’t have a case. They embrace subjective experience, and reject the presentation of reason and evidence as bigoted dogmatism, because, on some level, they know that reason and evidence aren’t on their side. They define religious debate as inherently intolerant because, on some level, they know that if they accepted the idea of debate and engaged in it, they’d lose.
So if they’re going to hang on to the beliefs they’re so attached to, they have to try to stop atheists from making our case in the first place. Or, if they can’t stop us from making our case, they have to find a good reason not to listen to us. They have to mentally slot our criticisms into the category of “disrespectful intolerant dogma”… which they therefore don’t have to think about.