I got an email from dscribner, responding to my recent AlterNet piece, “Why Does Religion Always Get a Free Ride?” With his permission, I’m posting his email here, along with my responses to it.
Thanks for your piece “Why Does Religion Always Get a Free Ride?” that I saw on AlterNet.org.
You seem to sincerely want a response (you asked the question several times) so I’ll do my best to offer a few thoughts on the matter.
You’re welcome. Thanks for taking the time to reply.
Before I continue let me preface my comments by saying that I’m not attacking you, and I hope you don’t feel as if my response is any way hostile. That’s a problem with the written word – we sometimes hear a tone that the writer didn’t intend. And I’m hoping to convey warmth, respect, and thoughtfulness.
Okay. I also think that writers sometimes convey ideas and attitudes they didn’t consciously intend, but that are nevertheless real. But I’ll certainly take this into consideration.
So in answer to your question, let me say first that you named a lot of good reasons in your piece. As you said, “People build communities, personal identities, support systems, coping mechanisms, entire life philosophies, around their religious beliefs.” And the truth is, they don’t like having to argue and defend those beliefs. They don’t like feeling mocked or ridiculed.
Yes, I understand that people don’t like this. People rarely like having their ideas criticized. They like to hang onto the ideas they’re comfortable with, and they don’t like being asked to argue and defend those ideas — i.e., being asked to think about them, and consider whether they’re really true. That’s especially true when they’ve built identities and communities around these ideas. Does that mean we shouldn’t do it? We certainly do it with other kinds of ideas. And if we think it’s okay to criticize other kinds of ideas that we think are mistaken and/or harmful, even if people don’t like hearing it… why should religion be the exception?
I’m going to be saying this a few times throughout, so I’ll start by saying it here: Move to strike as non-responsive. This has nothing whatsoever to do with my thesis — namely, that many people expect religion to get a special degree of protection from criticism, a degree of protection that they don’t expect for other kinds of ideas, and that this is not reasonable or fair.
I have had conversations with atheists who spoke of theism as if it were idiocy. They talked about my belief in a creator as if I were simply ignorant and foolish. And, truthfully, it’s hurtful and offensive to have someone speak to me and dismiss my beliefs in that way.
Move to strike as non-responsive.
I understand that this experience isn’t fun. But that doesn’t answer my question. It’s often hurtful to have people speak of any kind of idea you might hold as if it were idiocy — an idea about politics, science, philosophy, etc. But that doesn’t answer the question: Why should religion be the exception? Why should we accept a certain level of critical discourse for every other kind of topic, but give religion special protection? Why should religion be the exception?
I’m not privy to the particular conversations you’ve had with atheists, so I can’t render an opinion on whether I think they were out of line or not. I know that believers often accuse atheists of being hurtful and offensive for saying things that would be considered reasonable in conversations about any other subject — things like, “I don’t agree with you,” “I think you’re mistaken,” and “What evidence do you have to support that?” I also know that sometimes atheists can be jerks. So I can’t offer an opinion about which of these was going on in these conversations.
What I can say is this: At best, this is an argument about why people in general shouldn’t offer certain kinds of arguments, or use certain kinds of language in those arguments — not why atheists shouldn’t criticize religion, ever. And once again, it poses the question: If you have bad ideas about any other topic, people may make you feel foolish about them. Why should religion be the exception?
Most people recognize that making other people feel defensive and ridiculed is unkind, and so we have established this cultural norm that makes it taboo to deride someone’s religious beliefs.
Move to strike as seriously non-responsive.
Forgive me if I start to get a little testy here. But the more I read your email, the more it seems that you have missed the entire point of the article. Do you think it’s wrong to make people feel defensive and ridiculed by criticizing any other ideas they might have — ideas about politics, science, philosophy, etc.? I hope not. And if not, then — as I asked several times throughout the piece — why should religion be the exception?
You’re making a very slippery false equivalency here. “It’s unkind to make people feel defensive and ridiculed — therefore, we shouldn’t criticize people’s religious beliefs.” You start this statement with a generalization about discussion and debate, and end it by making religion a special case — without any explanation for that special case. You’re assuming the thing you’re trying to prove.
Oh, and I’d like to point out that the piece is about criticizing religious beliefs… not about “deriding” them. I don’t take kindly to that sort of verbal bait-and-switch. Just so you know.
And if everyone respected one another’s religious beliefs better, I think we’d have a more peaceful society and our “culture war” would be more of a “culture discussion.”
Move to strike as non-responsive.
I’m going to set aside for the moment the question of who is responsible for the culture wars, and whether atheists being more polite to believers would calm down the right-wing theocrats who are bent on setting their religious agenda into law.
Instead, I’m going to say this: I think it’s reasonable to ask for respect for the believers — but not for the beliefs. For the Nth time: We don’t expect respect for any other kind of idea, if we think it’s mistaken or harmful. Why should religion be the exception?
And I’m going to ask this: Why can’t we have a “discussion” about which ideas are right and which ones are wrong? Why is it such a disrespectful, hurtful, offensive thing to say, “I think your mistaken, and here’s why”? Why is that contributing to the culture war? Yet again: We consider that a valid thing to say about almost every other kind of idea. Why should religion be the exception?
Imagine if you had a friend who was determined to convince all Korean-Americans that their culture was stupid, and your friend was on a mission to persuade Korean-Americans to give up their old-fashioned, patriarchal, cultural traditions and values and embrace the more enlightened, progressive white-Amercian culture more fully. Wouldn’t that seem offensive and bigoted?
I see. So you’re treating religion, not as an idea, but as an identity, or a culture.
I understand that identity and culture are certainly aspects of religion, and are connected with it. But the core of religion is an idea — the idea of the supernatural. Just as many communities have political ideas at their core. We still consider those ideas fair game for criticism in the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion be the exception?
I don’t know very much about Korean-American culture. If there are specific traditions and values in it that I think are mistaken and harmful, then yes, I’m going to criticize them. I try to be respectful of other cultures — but when they do serious, non-consensual harm to people inside the culture and out of it, then yes, I’m going to try to persuade people out of them. I’m going to try to persuade people out of the Mormon cultures that kick their gay kids out of the home; the Quiverfull cultures that teach girls that their only purpose in life is to pump out as many babies as their bodies can bear, and that God will torture them forever if they don’t; the Islamic extremist cultures that cut off their little girls’ clitorises. And if you’re not going to speak out against these atrocities, in the name of not being “offensive” or “bigoted” — then shame on you.
Once again: Move to strike as non-responsive. You’re still not responding to the point — which is that other kinds of ideas and other aspects of culture are considered fair game for criticism, but religion gets special protection.
I suppose, you might say that my example isn’t a fair comparison because cultures are equal, and we cannot say that the white-American subculture is better than the Korean-American subculture, but we CAN say that atheism is better than theism. I’m afraid I would disagree with you on that. Which leads to my second point: just as religion is a truth claim, so is atheism. The belief that the natural universe came to its present state without any outside agent is (like religion) “a statement about what is and is not literally true in the non-subjective world.”
Move to strike as non-responsive.
Yes, I understand that atheism is a truth claim. (More accurately, it’s a null hypothesis, but I won’t quibble about that here.) Atheism is the assertion that the religion hypothesis has never been shown to have any good evidence or arguments supporting it, and that in the absence of any good evidence or arguments, we can provisionally reject it.
And I’m prepared to defend that claim. I’ve done so, many times. I’m not asking anyone not to criticize atheism. If they think it’s mistaken, they should criticize it. I’m prepared to defend my case for atheism. I’m not trying to make atheism exempt from criticism in the marketplace of ideas. I think it’s a better idea. I think we can say that atheism is better than theism — because the case for theism is really lousy, and the case for atheism is really good. Atheism is better than theism — because atheism is almost certainly true. And I’m not afraid of a fight. In a fair fight, I think atheism will flourish. It’s just that religion has been setting the terms of the fight for far too long, and for far too long the fight has not been fair. And this notion that it’s inherently offensive to criticize religion is one of the main tropes keeping atheist ideas out of the conversation, and keeping the fight unfair. Again: We criticize every other kind of idea. Why should religion be the exception?
My third point is that that you’re right: “persuading people out of their religion is often seen as proselytizing or evangelizing.” And people don’t like being the objects of evangelism. The people who do evangelism know that for every 1 person who accepts and believes their message, they get at least 99 doors slammed in their faces. People just don’t like to be evangelized. Certainly some approaches are more effective (and less repulsive) than others. But when it comes right down to it, most people don’t want to be told that their world-view is wrong and that yours is right. So most people have adopted a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” or “don’t judge, don’t piss off” policy, which I think is a good one.
Move to strike as non-responsive.
Once again, you seem to have missed the entire point of my piece. We “proselytize” to other people all the time about other kinds of ideas: ideas about politics, science, philosophy, medicine, etc. We tell people all the time that their world-view is wrong. No, people often don’t like it. In the marketplace of ideas, we do that anyway. In fact, you’re doing it right now. You’re trying to persuade me that my attempts to persuade people out of religion are misguided.
And I don’t have a problem with that. I mean, I disagree with you, obviously; I have problems with the idea that we shouldn’t care about reality if doing so hurts people’s feelings; and I have problems with the inconsistency of trying to persuade somebody not to persuade others. But the basic notion of “I think I’m right, and I think you’re wrong, and I’m going to try to talk you out of your idea and into mine” — I don’t have a problem with that. I think it’s fine. Why do you have a problem with it? Or, more accurately: Why do you have a problem with it when it comes to religion, and religion only? Assuming you think it’s a good idea to talk people out of their mistaken ideas about, say, global climate change, or the deregulation of the financial industry — why should religion be the exception?
Lastly, I’d like to suggest that religion doesn’t always get the free ride that you describe. At least, not like it used to. In earlier generations, you would have been absolutely correct. Public school teachers were Christians, elected officials were Christians, and everybody went to church. If you went against all that you would have been the oddball. But the world has been changing. Now teachers can get fired for talking about religion (but not for talking about politics). Employees can get fired for proselytizing at work, and while about half the politicians in America make a sickening display of showing off how religious they are, the other half make it very clear that religion does not drive their decision making. Cities can’t put up Nativity displays or the ten commandments on public property, but a 50’ statue in honor of Charles Darwin or some other scientist would be no problem.
The media send very mixed messages on faith. Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code” became an international best seller, and it clearly mocked religious doctrine. Bill Maher made a movie (“Religulous”) mocking religion, and he boldly mocks religion on national television. Then there’s Christopher Hitchens, George Carlin, Ricky Gervais, Richard Dawkins … the list goes on and on of people who very loudly and proudly make fun of the idea that there might be something beyond nature.
And then there are the Facebook posts and the bumper stickers (“Annoy A Christian, Think for Yourself” or “Silly Christians, Myths are for Kids!”).
Frankly, I just don’t see that religion is getting a free ride.
This is the one argument you’ve made that actually responds to my thesis. Instead of trying to defend the special protections that religion gets, here you’re arguing here that religion doesn’t get special protection from criticism.
You’re mistaken. Read any article criticizing religion, on AlterNet or any other good-sized, not-atheist-specific online forum — and then read the comments. You’ll see what I’m talking about. Tons of people will respond to any criticism of religion with a giant heap of special pleading — not about the particular criticism being leveled, but at the very idea of criticizing religion. This idea that any criticism of religion is inherently offensive and intolerant… it’s depressingly common.
I understand that this is changing. I understand that the free ride religion has been getting is starting to come to an end. More and more people are willing to stand up and say that the Emperor has no clothes. I think that’s awesome, and I’m trying to help that process along. But it still gets far more of a free ride than it deserves. It still gets treated as a special case, far more than it should. My question is: Why should we let this be the case? Why should religion be the exception?
But my hope, my sincere and deep hope is that America can learn to discuss our differing worldviews in a way that is constructive and respectful. Bumper stickers don’t do anything but leave people feeling affirmed or attacked. Cutting comments by Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins don’t effectively persuade people; instead they drive us to cluster into safe tribal settings.
I don’t even know where to begin with this. (Other than, once again: Move to strike as non-responsive.)
First: When it comes to the question of effective persuasion, you are flatly mistaken. I don’t know about Bill Maher, but Richard Dawkins has been extraordinarily effective in persuading people. Ask any large-ish group of atheists in the Western world which writers and thinkers helped them on their path to atheism, and you’ll hear Dawkins’ name come up again and again. And I find it fascinating that political and cultural critics like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who wield mockery to cut down the pretensions and absurdities of the powerful, are adored by progressive culture… but when it comes to religion, all of a sudden, it’s not nice to make fun and hurt people’s feelings.
(I’m also not sure how a closely-reasoned essay of over 2,600 words counts as a “bumper sticker.”)
But that’s neither here nor there. Here’s my question: Are you arguing against the use of mockery — which is what I assume you mean by being “cutting” and not “respectful” — in any critique of other people’s ideas? Or is it just religion that shouldn’t be mocked? If it’s the former, then I sincerely hope you never watch Jon Stewart, or any political comedian. And if it’s the latter, then once again I will ask you: Why should religion be the exception?
You seem like an articulate, passionate person who cares about worldview issues and has a platform for reaching the public. I would encourage you (as I’m encouraging other people) to use your platform wisely and help us to get beyond a bumper-sticker discussion of “my worldview is better than your worldview” to something like, “let me tell you what I believe” or even better, “in spite of our differing views, how can we find solutions to the great social and economic problems that we’re all wrestling with?”
And I would encourage you to start caring a little bit more about whether the things you believe are true.
We are not going to find solutions to the great social and economic problems that we’re all wrestling with if we don’t pay attention, first and foremost, to what is true. Not to what we want to be true; not to what hurts people’s feelings when they hear it’s true. What’s actually true. We need to know what’s true about the world — so we know how to act in it.
We are not going to find solutions to the great social and economic problems that we’re all wrestling with if our conversations consist entirely of, “Oo! Your idea is so cool! Here’s mine — isn’t it cool, too?” — with no concern for which of these ideas is more likely to be true. We are not going to find solutions to global climate change, poverty, the HIV pandemic, the impending peak oil crisis, gross economic inequity, racism, the worldwide oppression of women, and more, if we decline to point out that other people’s ideas are flatly mistaken, and are doing serious harm.
And finally, I’d like to point out that you haven’t, in fact, responded in any way, shape or form to the question I posed in this AlterNet piece. You keep saying that people get their feelings hurt when their religion is criticized — without offering an answer for why religion should be an exception.
But you haven’t made one single argument for why religion should be the exception. All you’ve done is point out that people get their feelings hurt when people tell them they’re mistaken.
Yes. I get that. I just can’t make it a priority. To quote Daniel Dennett, “I listen to all these complaints about rudeness and intemperateness, and the opinion that I come to is that there is no polite way of asking somebody: have you considered the possibility that your entire life has been devoted to a delusion? But that’s a good question to ask. Of course we should ask that question and of course it’s going to offend people. Tough.”
As I said about eleventy million times in the piece: Yes, I understand that people get upset when their ideas are questioned and criticized. That’s true of religious ideas, and it’s true of other kinds of ideas. Should we stop criticizing every other kind of idea, just because people get their feelings hurt when we do?
And if not — then why should religion be the exception?