The alleged arrogance of atheists-5: Rhetoric in politics and religion

(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.)

For earlier posts in this series, see here.

In a response on the Machines Like Us website as to whether my three assertions:

  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.

constituted rudeness or arrogance, a commenter kaath said that:

The three points you make above are not rude as points of view when stated in that way. However, in my experience they are 1) factually incorrect or 2) unfalsifiable. Further, they are often rephrased in antagonistic or sarcastic ways.

This last item has been noted even by other atheists on this site—the idea being that if what you really want is a serious and reasonable debate you use serious, reasonable words. That is not what happens here a goodly amount of the time.

A number of the folks who post on the site either as bloggers or as commentators resort to sarcasm to make fun of the religionist. (my italics)

I think that this is what everything essentially boils down to. Many religious people feel that their beliefs should not be made fun of even in the public sphere.

Is the request to not make fun of religion a reasonable one? My response is no. Religious beliefs have no special status and should be treated just like any other beliefs. When it comes to the public sphere, I agree totally with author Salman Rushdie who, in opposing an attempt by the British government to pass legislation for a ban on incitement to “hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds”, reflected on an aspect of his own education.

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible. (my italics)

To see why the appeal that religious beliefs deserve special treatment in debate is invalid, compare religion to politics. One is warned that in social gatherings one should avoid the topics of politics and religion, because people hold strongly entrenched views on both and thus discussions have the potential to blow up into angry confrontations. But although both topics are considered sensitive and even explosive, when we compare public discussions in the world of politics with those in the world of religion, we immediately see that the call for respectful treatment of religious beliefs for what it is: special pleading for ideas that cannot withstand critical scrutiny.

The difference in the way those two topics are debated in the public sphere is very revealing. In the political sphere people feel quite free to make strong and even personal criticisms of political figures. Political cartoonists, for example, not only lampoon public political figures and ridicule their ideas, they even make fun of their appearance, by caricaturing their physical features and making them look ridiculous. And we think this is perfectly acceptable and part of the natural give and take of public debate. No one accuses these cartoonists of being rude or arrogant or practicing hate speech, even though for many people their political views may be held more deeply than even their religious views.

So why should we not be similarly allowed to caricature public religious figures like Jehovah/Melvin/Jesus/Allah/Mohammed/Krishna/… and ridicule their ideas? And yet, when a Danish cartoonist made fun of Mohammed, we have the absurd spectacle of people rioting in the streets and calls for the introduction of blasphemy laws, a reversion to the Dark Ages. People’s feelings on religion are so easily inflamed because for too long, unlike the case with political beliefs, they have been used to those around them pretending to act as if those beliefs made sense even though they may privately think they are ridiculous.

Islam is a particular extreme case of what happens when we grant religious beliefs undue deference. In addition to the cartoon incident, we had the brutal murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004. He was shot by Mohammed Bouyeri as he rode his bicycle to work. His killer then cut his victim’s throat, almost decapitating him, and then stabbed him in the chest and a left note embedded in his body. Van Gogh’s crime? He had made a 10-minute film that told the story of four abused Muslim women (see below). Bouyeri made a courtroom confession of his crime but was unapologetic and said he killed van Gogh out of religious conviction and that he would do the same again if given the chance. Holding a copy of the Koran, he said that “the law compels me to chop off the head of anyone who insults Allah and the prophet.” So Bouyeri thinks that his mighty god, the ruler of the universe, is so insecure and thin-skinned that he cares about a short film. The reality is of course that it is Bouyeri who is so unused to having his religious beliefs criticized that he becomes unhinged when it occurs. This shows what happens when religious people get used to thinking that their beliefs should be immune from criticism.

H. L. Mencken, in the wake of the Scopes trial in 1925, defended Clarence Darrow’s harsh treatment of William Jennings Bryan on the witness stand by making this very point. (You can find the full context on pages 150-151 of my book God vs. Darwin.) It is worth quoting him at length:

The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us.

I do not know how many Americans entertain the ideas defended so ineptly by poor Bryan, but probably the number is very large. They are preached once a week in at least a hundred thousand rural churches, and they are heard too in the meaner quarters of the great cities. Nevertheless, though they are thus held to be sound by millions, these ideas remain mere rubbish. Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them. They are the products of ignorance and stupidity, either or both.

What should be a civilized man’s attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings. That is what Darrow did at Dayton, and the issue plainly justified the act. Bryan went there in a hero’s shining armor, bent deliberately upon a gross crime against sense. He came out a wrecked and preposterous charlatan, his tail between his legs. Few Americans have ever done so much for their country in a whole lifetime as Darrow did in two hours.

We must of course respect the right of people to believe whatever they want to believe. But that is a completely different issue. We have no obligation whatsoever to respect the beliefs themselves and, in criticizing them, the use of every available rhetorical technique is legitimate, whether it be sarcasm, derision, ridicule, or whatever. The only restraints should be those that are self-imposed by the people making the criticisms, on the basis of their personal preferences or whether they think the methods they are using are effective as persuasion. In some situations, sarcasm and derision may be perfectly appropriate, in others not.

There are those who argue that sarcasm and derision are not effective in getting people to change their minds, so it is self-defeating to use such rhetorical methods. But people who engage in public debates know that the person whose ideas they are directly challenging is not the real target of persuasion because such people’s views are unlikely to change. The real targets are the curious and more dispassionate observers watching the debate. Humor, sarcasm, and even ridicule of ideas may well be effective with them because they are not so wedded to the ideas being targeted. It is also perfectly true that what may be appropriate in the public sphere may not be so in the private sphere. What people who accuse the new/unapologetic atheists of being rude, arrogant, etc. seem to be doing is applying the standards of the private sphere to the public sphere.

When it comes to public debates about public issues and ideas, we must come to terms with the fact that pretty much anything goes, apart from obvious prohibitions against lying and defamation and libel. And religion has to take its lumps along with everything else.

POST SCRIPT: Submission

This 10-minute film narrating the abuse of four Muslim women is the reason for the brutal murder of Theo van Gogh.