Taking offense


I have written before (See here, here, here, and here.) that one of the odd characteristics about the discussions about the new atheism is the frequently made charge that the new atheists are ‘rude’ and saying ‘offensive’ things about religion.

I myself have said things that may warrant this charge. I have frequently compared belief in god to belief in Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, and the tooth fairy. Religious people may have got offended by this, thinking that I am trivializing their deeply held beliefs. But this reaction itself suggests what a privileged position religion has long held in public discourse, trying to force critics into muting their statements. It is not as if I am making ad hominem attacks on believers or calling them names.

When I compare belief in god to things like the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I am making the point that they all have the same level of empirical evidence in support of them and that the same kinds of arguments are used in their favor. Atheists are merely taking these arguments of religious believers to their logical conclusions as a means of showing their weaknesses, which is a perfectly valid and time-honored form of reasoning. Yet people take one belief (their own particular variant of god) seriously and dismiss the others, making this an interesting study of what kind of thinking enables them to do so.

In a discussion on British radio Richard Dawkins (author of the book The God Delusion) picks up on a point made by another scientist Lord Robert Winston who suggests that Dawkins is insulting religion by calling belief in god a delusion. Dawkins responds:

There is a double standard here, that if we were just having an argument about some scientific matter we could argue quite vigorously and you wouldn’t feel insulted, you wouldn’t feel offended. But there’s something about religion that feels entitled to take offense if you just say something that would be comparatively mild in another context. I can’t help feeling that offense is something that people take when they’ve run out of arguments.

Dawkins makes a good point. In politics or science or other debates, you do not usually say you are offended if someone criticizes your position. It is usually done only when you have no adequate response. For example, in 2005 Amnesty International leveled a serious charge against the US: “We have documented that the U.S. government is a leading purveyor and practitioner of the odious human rights violation. . . As evidence of torture and widespread cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment mounts, it is more urgent than ever that the U.S. government bring the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and any other facilities it is operating outside the USA into full compliance with international law and standards. The only alternative is to close them down.”

When questioned about this Dick Cheney said he was “offended” by the comment. But why should we care if he is offended? His feelings are not the issue here. But what he was trying to do was make the issue off-limits to questioning, because he had no real arguments with which to respond.

When Kirk Cameron tried to ridicule evolutionary theory by suggesting that it should predict the existence of animals like ‘croc-o-ducks’, with the body of a duck and the head of a crocodile, I did not get offended and say “How dare you, sir!” in the fine manner of Victorian melodramas. I was simply amused and countered by pointing out how his statement shows his ignorance of the theory.

This tendency to give religious views shelter from criticism is the reason that one finds periodic eruptions of religious anger and even riots over perceived slights. The angry response by some Christians over the ‘chocolate Jesus’, the ‘elephant dung Mary’, and the ‘crucifix in urine’, the rioting by some Muslims over the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, and the anger of some Hindus in India because of the depiction of naked Hindu deities by an acclaimed Indian painter M. F. Hussain are all signs that religious sensibilities have been accorded far too much deference. The more deference one gives to someone or some ideas, the more prickly sensitivity such people exhibit, resulting in them demanding even greater deference. It is a very harmful feedback loop.

Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, said: “One of the most frightening things in the Western world, and in this country in particular, is the number of people who believe in things that are scientifically false. If someone tells me that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, in my opinion he should see a psychiatrist.” (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote.)

Should creationists get offended by the suggestion that they need professional help? Note that even Crick did not explicitly say that he would actually tell the person that he should see a psychiatrist. To gratuitously tell people that they are borderline psychotic, when they merely hold a particular set of views and seem to pose no danger to themselves or to others, would be offensive. But there is nothing wrong with publicly saying that certain beliefs are irrational.

If anyone we knew said that they heard voices telling them what to do and that they believed in invisible things like magic unicorns, we would be more concerned and may try and get them some help. But if they say identical things about god, we give them a pass. The fact that we do not usually tell people that they should see a psychiatrist when they say that they think the world is less than 10,000 years old shows that religious beliefs already receive considerable deference and leeway.

The proper response to this demand for excessive deference to religious beliefs is not to go out of one’s way to gratuitously insult people. That usually does not achieve anything worthwhile. But at the same time, people should not be allowed to say “I’m offended!” and expect that to be taken as a serious argument.

So when atheists suggest that the beliefs of Christianity have the same intellectual and scientific stature as belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the response should not be to get in a huff but to show why the two beliefs deserve to be treated differently. To merely say one is offended is, as Dawkins points out, to tacitly concede that one has run out of arguments.

Comments

  1. Kathy says

    Hi, Mano —

    As a woman, I’ve occasionally been offended by a remark I perceive as sexist. The man who makes the remark only makes it worse when he says that he “didn’t intend” for it to be sexist. (I often believe him, but it doesn’t negate the offensiveness of the remark.) The offense gets much worse when the guy insists that I’m “being too sensitive” and much, much worse when he tries to get into my head to explain to me why I’m actually offended.

    I assume you can see the parallel.

    I’m not offended by atheism, atheists, or atheist arguments. (Some of my best friends…etc.) I’m not insulted or shocked by a disbelief in God. I respect the arguments and am willing to question my own beliefs. I’m certainly not always sure I’m right. Anne Lamott wrote that the essence of faith isn’t certainty..it’s doubt.

    I’m offended specifically by the fairies, Easter Bunny, and Flying Spaghetti Monsters…even though I understand (and am not offended by) the underlying logical argument about irrational beliefs. These references contain, of course, an inherent trivialization of religious belief…which is your right…but it’s also offensive.

    Here’s why. It makes me think of all the people I know, love, and respect who are believers and all of those (I’ve mentioned them before) I don’t know but who serve as role models for me. The Easter Bunny never profoundly changed a person’s life. Belief in God is much more profound (as I think even you’ll admit), and, even if it’s delusional, can radically change a person’s life. Let’s stick to those whose lives are changed for the better (I know you’re going to mention people flying airplanes into buildings here) for a second. The Higher Power step has helped thousands of people stop drinking. Religious faith motivated people like MLK and Bonhoeffer to give their lives for their convictions. It keeps Fr. Jim O’Donnell and my church pastor Dan Begin working in seemingly hopeless parts of Cleveland.

    There’s no tradition of self-sacrifice, literature, arts, and debate that’s grown out of belief in fairies.

    So, one “irrational” belief is not like the others. The Easter Bunny comparison is like telling someone that a novel they’ve put years of work into is like an off-the-cuff story my child made up. Well, yeah — they’re both fiction, they’re both imaginative…but the comparison (as my grandmother used to say) is odious. My popsicle-stick basket is like your gorgeous hand-carved chair — they’re both made of wood!

    Here’s a “cherished” story of our marriage that comes to mind. Many years ago I baked a complicated and challenging chocolate cake, using some expensive imported chocolate that had been given to us as a gift. When John tasted it, he said (approvingly), “It reminds me of Hostess Cupcakes!”

    This was apparently true — it did remind him of Hostess Cupcakes — and he actually loves Hostess Cupcakes … but I wished he hadn’t said it. And he wishes he hadn’t said it, too.

  2. says

    Kathy,

    I can see your point. It is true that beliefs in fairies do not inspire self-sacrifical behavior, the way that religious beliefs have done. But religious believers tend to want to allow only the positives of religion into a discussion, while not allowing the negatives.

    But if you are going to argue that the wonderful things that religion has inspired some people to do entitles those beliefs to preferential treatment, then I am afraid that you cannot close the door to the counter argument.

    It could be argued that although belief in fairies has not inspired people to do great things, it should be granted preferential treatment over traditional religious beliefs because it has also not caused people to commit unspeakable acts in its name, the way religion has done. Why is that not a valid argument?

    As for the people you mention, I have no doubt that they are genuinely decent altruistic people. I suspect they would continue to do what they do even if they were convinced tomorrow that there was not god. Belief in god is the reason they give to something I suspect they would do anyway.

  3. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    I’ve read over your post here and Kathy’s reply and I have to say that
    on the balance I find her points rather compelling.

    I agree that _technically_ comparing someone’s belief in god to a
    belief in Santa Claus is not a direct “ad hominem” attack. But doing
    this still gives the implication — intended or not — of accusing the
    believer of being child-like, a simpleton, mentally immature or
    defective. It can be therefore perceived as an “indirect” ad hominem
    attack. And arguing that this was not the “intent” does not really
    diffuse this too much, I think.

    I also especially agree with Kathy’s point about assigning motives for
    the offense. When Ann Coulter accuses liberals of “hating America”
    because the do not agree with her politics, she is, in my opinion,
    being offensive.

    It also seems to me that offense is not always simply a “refuge” from
    inability to argue logically. Offense can also be a justified
    response to an argument that is being framed unfairly: “Senator, when
    did you stop beating your wife?” for example. When you speculate (as
    you did two posts ago) that moderate believers somehow maintain their
    belief system by constructing extremely elaborate arguments “in the
    absence of evidence and in the face of massive counter-evidence” I
    feel you are pushing in this direction. Likewise, when you put a
    belief in god on the same plane as the Easter Bunny — implying that
    unsupportable supernatural characteristics of god are automatically
    central to every religious experience — I feel again that you are
    using an incomplete framework.

    Having said all this, we live in an (ideally) free society and you are
    certainly free to make your arguments even if some find them
    offensive. Indeed, I suspect that people being offended is
    unavoidable even in a healthy democratic society. And I think you are
    right — religious institutions have been granted perhaps too much
    social power — power that can be abused. But on the other hand if
    you go around comparing people’s most cherished personal value systems
    to a belief in the Easter Bunny you should not be surprised that some
    people are not going to be pleased by such a notion.

    Finally, regarding your point about “opening the door” to the issue of
    the “good vs. evil” that is done in the name of religion; by all means
    this is an interesting argument and (to my mind) much more relevant
    than the issue of whether there is a rational argument to support the
    existence of god. I’ve asked you to consider tackling this before.
    In particular, there is a interesting analogy with regards to the idea
    of religion and government. One could argue that both are human
    social constructions. Both manifest in institutions which may give
    some great sources of benefit to societies and individuals, but both
    have also been great sources of destruction and oppression. Would it
    be fair to say that the argument that the “militant atheist” makes
    that the world would be better off without _all_ religions analogous
    to the argument that the anarchist would make that the world would be
    better off without any governments?

    -Corbin

  4. Corbin says

    Dang — one problem with posting comments is that
    once they are sent they cannot be edited by the
    poster….

    Third paragraph of my comment is not clearly
    written: Replace:

    “I also especially agree with Kathy’s point about assigning motives for the offense….”

    with

    “I also especially agree with Kathy’s point about
    taking issue with other people trying to get
    into my head to infer my motivations and
    reasons for feeling and/or doing things a certain way…”

    -Corbin

  5. Kathy says

    I agree with Corbin — You’re, in essence, calling people I love and respect simpletons. Of course it’s offensive. Also, as to your last point, I would be very hesitant to deny those altruistic people’s testimony…If they say that they’re living their faith… and it looks as though they are…I take them at their word. Again, it seems arrogant to imagine that we know better and they’re just “giving a reason” for what they do.

    One of my arguments is that religious belief, unlike the Easter Bunny, creates profound changes in people’s thinking and behavior. I also mentioned literature, the arts, and rigorous intellectual debate that derive from religious thought. No one’s written an Easter Bunny Oratorio.

    This is not the same thing as arguing that religion has had only good results. I’m not talking merely about the positives … I’m talking about the serious and profound and complicated influences of religion in our culture and people’s lives. That’s what makes it different from fairies and the Easter Bunny.

  6. dave says

    “But if you are going to argue that the wonderful things that religion has inspired some people to do entitles those beliefs to preferential treatment, then I am afraid that you cannot close the door to the counter argument.”

    I disagree.

    Many times I have heard the line, ‘more people have been killed in the name of God than any other reason.’

    Who said God was/is the reason for any death? How do we know the real reason isn’t the quest for land, power, money, or historic artifacts? Just because something is labeled a religious war doesn’t mean the motivation for the war is godly.

    Whether a god exists or not I’m not sure. But what I can say for sure is that I have seen individuals changed profoundly because of a new found faith in God. Yet, I’ve yet to see someone changed for the worse because of a new found faith.

    Alas, I guess I’m just being irrational.

  7. says

    Kathy, Corbin, and Dave,

    Thanks for the comments.

    I started responding to each of you but then decided that it made more sense to have one coherent response rather than patchy separate responses. Since it got a little long, I am going to defer writng it until later this evening and will post it as a separate entry tomorrow morning.

    The one issue that I will write about at a future date is the last point Corbin made, about the good v. evil debate and whether the world would be better without religion altogether. I had not forgotten the issue but hadn’t got round to writing about it. But it will come failry soon!

  8. says

    Mano,
    As a fellow non-believer I’ve enjoyed this series because I love discussing religion, but find that it can be like walking a tight-rope depending on you are discussing it with. I always try to be respectful of the other person, but want them to respect me, other non-believers and believers of other faiths as well.

    Kathy’s concern is challenging and I’m still trying to wrap my thoughts around it. I agree that the paths to belief in the Easter Bunny or God can be quite similar–each predicated on faith rather than reason. The trouble seems to be that the Easter Bunny plays a smaller role in our lives while belief in God is central to many people’s world view.

    The extremity of the example seems to clarify the message, at the same time that it makes some uneasy. But a different example say comparing belief in Thor to Jesus, wouldn’t be as poignant, because most Americans have believed in the Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy and many (not all) believers automatically dismiss the beliefs of other religions.

    I don’t see your posts as trivializing people’s beliefs in God. Instead it seems to me that you are trying to equate the nature of belief rather than the beliefs themselves. I guess the question is how to word it so that everyone remains comfortable, yet given the nature of the topic, that may not be possible. Perhaps one has to cause discomfort to get to the root of the issue. I look forward to seeing tomorrow’s post to see where you take this next.

    The subject of religion for good or evil is another huge topic, and I think Dave makes a good point regarding “more people have been killed in the name of God than any other reason.” I’ve always interpreted it to mean that the humans made bad and/or evil decisions “in the name of God” so as to exert power and influence over others.

    If I were a believer, I think I would still blame the humans invoking God’s name rather than the God whose name they invoked. Mr. Deity makes this point well (and amusingly) in Mr. Deity and the top ten.

  9. Thought Shaman says

    I intend to post a longer response to issues raised here later.

    However, w.r.t. Dave’s observation that he is “yet to see someone changed for the worse because of a new found faith.” I have seen such a change, a colleague of mine admitted that he believed homosexuality was acceptable in society until he had a religious transformation and became a “Christian.” While, his transformation helped him in many ways, it also introduced in him at the very least a bigoted notion.

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