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Feb 22 2010

The alleged arrogance of atheists-2: Public and private personas

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

My post about the alleged arrogant statements of atheists generated some interesting responses. In that post I asserted three basic assertions that I, as a new/unapologetic atheist make, and asked which ones would be considered arrogant or rude or offensive, which are the charges leveled most often at us. The assertions were:

  1. There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are incompatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

In this short series of posts, I will address two responses because they touch on two different aspects because they raise some important issues of general interest. One is by Jared Bendis, someone whom I have known personally for many years. You can read his full comment in the original post but I will excerpt the key portions and respond to each. The other response appeared on the Machines Like Us website and was by someone named ‘kaath’ whom I do not know personally.

Jared begins:

Mano, I have read your posts for years – and I know you in person. I’m often shocked about how confrontational your posts can be. I can’t imagine any other person I know not just discussing their opinion publicly but making clear their feeling on the beliefs of others.

Today I was hurt by what I read. I don’t think you meant it to hurt – I know it wasn’t directed at me personally – and I don’t think you will care for my counterargument but I felt I needed to say it: Today your words hurt me.

Jared is expressing a view that is not uncommon for those who know me personally and also read my blog. On my recent trip to Sri Lanka a very old friend of mine from boyhood days (who is religious) asked me out to lunch just so that he could have an extended private conversation with me because he too had found my blog to be very strongly worded against religion and he found it hard to reconcile with his personal impression of me. After our lunch, he said he understood why there is a difference and maybe this series of posts will similarly clarify it for others. Or maybe not.

As I have said before, my argumentation style in private forums (in my classes or in conversations with people) is quite different from that in public forums (such as this blog or public talks) which is why I may seem to have a Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde dual personality to those who know me personally. Part of the reason for this difference is that unlike Dr. Jekyll, I have chosen to adopt a particular persona for my blog posts on atheism, for reasons I have spelled out earlier. Another reason is that people fail to distinguish the styles of discourse used in private and public forums and apply the standards that are appropriate for the former to the latter.

When you are talking with people directly, person to person, it is hard to separate an idea from the person expressing and supporting it, so it requires a much slower and gentler approach, in order to make clear that you are attacking the idea and not the person. But in public forums, ideas can and should be viewed under the clear light of reason and evidence, and even on occasion subjected to derision and ridicule, for that is the way we determine which ideas are durable and which are ephemeral, and how we distinguish between ideas that have value and the potential to be true and those that are meaningless or false.

Once an idea is out in the public forum, it is open to any and all forms of scrutiny. When you criticize ideas in public forums, you are not attacking any person, even though it is likely that many people will have identical ideas to the ones that you are attacking and may have explicitly expressed them. The people whose ideas are thus scrutinized may choose to take it personally, but that is their problem to deal with.

Coming back to the substance of my post, Jared agrees 100% with my first assertion so that is not the cause of the problems he has with my post.

While he does disagree with my second assertion that “Science and religion are incompatible worldviews”, he does not find it hurtful, so that assertion is also not one that causes offense.

It is my third assertion, that “The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural”, that he finds offensive. He says:

I think you really don’t get how deep rooted religion is into the psyche of those that are religious or have a faith. To wish away their religion is almost to wish away them.

I could read your statement as
The world would be better off without Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (etc)

And I could read your statement as
The world would be better off without Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (etc)

Now I am not saying you meant that, but, to propose the nullification of that part of me is to propose my nullification. And I read it as hate speech.

To say that my words ” The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural” can be taken to mean that I want the “nullification” of people who hold such beliefs, and to thus conclude that it is hate speech seems to me to be a stretch, and in the next post I will examine this point in more detail.

POST SCRIPT: John Cleese on genetic determinism

2 comments

  1. 1
    ollie

    Interesting. Actually, I find your posts to be very gentle but direct; I’ve come to see your writing is an example of how to present ideas in an inoffensive manner!

    Silly me.

  2. 2
    john

    As usual a very interesting aticle. I so enjoy reading these articles as you certainly have a way of widening my insight into different faiths and religions.
    As a very general comment I believe tghat we all as indiduals have the right to pactise any religion of our choice as long as we do not infict harm on others in any shape or form.

    Keep up the hardwork

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