Guest post by Corbin Covault

My two posts on Taking offense and Taking offense (revisited) generated a lively discussion in the comments. One of the responses covered many of the issues raised by those who disagreed with some or all of my remarks and I felt that it should reach a wider readership so I asked the author to write it as a guest post. While it is a little longer than my own posts, I think readers will find that it provides an interesting perspective.

So what follows is Corbin’s guest post:

Thank you for your very thoughtful response to comments by myself and others regarding your post on taking offense. Indeed you tend to present very thoughtful remarks on your blog which is why I like to read it, and this most recent post is one of your most thoughtful. Your point on the tendency of conflation between plausibility and worthiness is particularly well taken.

Having said this and having reflected further on the issue, I would still say that you should not have been surprised to learn that some religious believers would find your comparison of belief in god to belief in the Easter Bunny offensive. But I should emphasize here at the start that I did not mean to imply in my previous comment that I myself found the comparison between god and the Easter bunny or whatever offensive. And even if I did, I probably not have “taken offense” at what was said.

An aside: I suppose it’s a level of degree: I mentioned before that I find many of Ann Coulter’s assertions offensive, but I do not “take offense” as she is so uniformly outrageous that it seems actively responding to what she says might serve no purpose. I also have number of friends and colleagues who by temperament may tend to say or do “offensive” things but since I otherwise value or respect the relationships for various reasons, its better to simply ignore the offense. In contrast, I recently found myself “taking offense” at some of our local Democratic congresspersons who failed to vote no on the war funding bill. In this case my offense took the form of phone calls, email and letters to the editor making known my unhappiness that they voted in apparent opposition to their stated commitments to end the war as soon as possible.

Anyway, I am saying that since you brought the topic of taking offense up, it seems quite natural to me that some people would find your comparison between god and childhood fictitious characters offensive. And as I said, I found Kathy’s points rather compelling for the reasons I stated earlier.

Upon further reflection, I realize part of the issue has to do with what I might call my natural tendency to try to put myself in the “other person’s shoes” on both sides of any discussion. If one side indicates that something expressed is “offensive” then this might be an indication that the other side appears not to have sufficient empathy for the alternate point of view.

I realize that an “apparent lack of empathy” for an opposing viewpoint is hardly a basis for evaluating the validity of a rational argument. But from a practical point of view in the context of persuasion and possible consensus building, it seems that some of the most effective discussions between opposing viewpoints result when a real effort is made by both sides to see the situation from an honest point of view of the other side. Of course the strength of arguments comes into the discussion as well, but I will say, based on my experience, that if there is not at least some level of willingness to “honor the viewpoint” of the other side, then all of the arguments in the world, no matter how rational, will fall on deaf ears. And if one side or the other “takes offense” then perhaps — maybe — this might be an indication that someone, somewhere is not really living up to this ideal of trying to be empathetic with the other side at some level.

Of course, I am not suggesting that trying to “avoid offense” is worthwhile in every scenario. If one is attempting to argue against what is perceived as a very dangerous idea, or if one is trying to counter an argument made by someone who at the onset demonstrates a propensity for demonizing those with opposing views then perhaps taking the empathetic tack might not get too far. As you indicated, perhaps there is not much value in worrying too much about whether Dick Cheney is offended by something. But I will contend that if one’s purpose is to engage in a dialog with individuals or groups who have an opposing point of view, but with whom you otherwise might respect and are trying to persuade to your own point of view, then raising arguments that might be construed as offensive — even if such an offense might be deemed irrational — might not be the best tactic, practically speaking.

I also recognize that there is a difference between the “public realm” of discourse and debate (which seems to be more “rough and tumble”) and the private or pseudo-private realm within (for example) families and organizations where a need for empathy might be much more motivated between people who have to be in close proximity to each other in some sense.

I suppose a “blog” lives mostly in the “public sphere” sort of….

Yes, I agree very strongly with your general point that it is not “fair” for people with religious ideas to expect to be insulated from any kind of criticism (rhetorical devices as you put it) even if the device is relatively harsh. I agree that any set of ideas, in a free and pluralistic society, is fair game for public scrutiny.

But I could also argue that making arguments with harsh rhetorical devices might not always be the best way to make arguments in any sphere of discourse. I can think of two or three columnists, for example, that actively promote political views that I substantially agree with but who do so with such venom for any opposing view that I am embarrassed. Perhaps one might excuse such a confrontational approach in the sciences, since ultimately any particular viewpoint will be resolved not by the emotional strength of an argument but by experimental verification. But in the political (and religious) arenas, there is no experimentalist to resolve the argument about competing theories.

It’s not obvious to me that the way to find the best ideas in any given arena is always to subject them to withering rhetorical attacks to test their survivability. And one could argue that the use of harsh rhetorical devices might be as unhelpful for moving forward a rational discussion of the issues in the political and policy arenas as it may be becoming within the religious spheres. This is not to say that there is not a time and a place for the expression of objection, protest and complaint within a political arena, for example. But it seems to me that such activity all by itself is not the equivalent of making rational arguments. And it is my belief that if the rationale for an argument is sound, it should not depend so sensitively on a need to be expressed in the context of harsher rhetorical devices. And it might even be the case that the argument can be made more effectively if it is make empathetically. It’s an issue of persuasion.

As an example in the political arena, one might argue that the Greensboro sit-ins did much more to persuade white Americans of the validity of civil rights demands than did any number of protest marches. So I am not saying that atheists do not have the right to make harsh public criticisms of religion. They certainly enjoy that right and religious people do not really have any basis to ask for special protection from such criticism. I am just saying that using harsh rhetorical devices might not always be the best idea if you want people to listen thoughtfully to what you are saying. So yes, as you say, that ship has sailed, but perhaps not everyone ought to hop on it.

Indeed, I might suggest that the fair complaint about of some of the writings of the “new atheists” is not so much that the arguments are “disrespectful” but that they are sometimes rather non-empathetic to the opposing point of view. Some of the writing seems to be developed with the aim of simply tearing down a viewpoint rather than persuading people to change their minds. Again, this has nothing to do with the rationality or validity of the argument, but if the argument comes across in a certain way it may not “convert” fence-sitters or others. Indeed if the tone is perceived as too strident then you risk turning people off to your argument, logical or not.

For example, I personally cannot read much of what Sam Harris writes….not because his arguments are unsound (although there are several arguments he makes that I do not agree with) but because much of his writing is so uniformly unsympathetic to any opposing view. For example, in your quote of Sam Harris where he says: “[Atheism] is simply an admission of the obvious…” This comes across as rather arrogant and to just this extent it’s sort of offensive — or at least irritating. “Obvious”? Obvious to whom? To many people the word obvious implies something that “anyone but a simpleton”, anyone who has any rational ability at all, would readily agree to. In fact, by such a definition, atheism appears to be rather non-obvious. I know this is not the intended meaning. I know that Harris really means “obvious in the context of following the rational implication of adopting a purely scientific perspective on all things.” But he doesn’t put it that way, exactly. Instead he gives the impression of impatience and self-righteousness. I suspect that this particular wording of his argument here would only be appealing to someone who already shares this point of view.

I can think of one other example of this kind of thing. Some years ago I was involved in a class that dealt with the issue of scientifically assessing pseudo-scientific claims. It was a class for non-science majors, and one of the books on the reading list was The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Darkness by Carl Sagan. From my point of view this was an excellent book for this course that went right to the heart of several keys issues that I hoped the students would be addressing in the class. However, I was surprised by an outpouring of rather strong negative feedback about the book that I was getting from a large number of students in the class. Students felt that the writing was “arrogant”, “condescending” and uncompelling — “annoying to read” — this from students who were otherwise apparently quite open in a general way to looking and considering ideas about how to scientifically approach pseudo-scientific claims.

The problem was not that Sagan’s message was wrong or unsound — the problem was that it did not reach students where they were at. It turned students off. The point here is that in this context, at least, even to the extent that the scientific message was presented with what I thought was a reasonable tone, students turned away from what they perceived to be a “harsh argument” even when ultimately they found similar arguments quite compelling when presented in a different context.

Okay now finally, I would like to articulate one last reflection related to the atheism arguments you have made. Specifically, it seems like your whole case for atheism rests on the central premise that one should “take a scientific approach to every aspect of life.” You contend that atheism is not in-and-of-itself a philosophy, but I do not understand how a decision to “take a scientific approach to every aspect of life” is not itself a “philosophy”. Maybe I am misunderstanding your use of the word.

Indeed, if I narrow the issue further, it still seems like the application of science is a “philosophy”. If you say something as restricted even as “the best way to understand the physical universe is to apply the scientific approach” isn’t this a “philosophy”? Don’t we even call our experts “doctors of philosophy”? I will agree that it is a mighty powerful and effective philosophy but I do not see how it is not a philosophy. I do not see how science itself can be justified “scientifically”. We apply science to the physical world and we discover “it works”. Are you contending that science can be used to self-justify itself?

Likewise, when you make the argument that the “scientific approach should be applied to every aspect of life” are you not extrapolating at some level? I will concede that if one grants that such an approach should be taken, then what I will call a “strong atheism” is the logical rational conclusion. But I am not sure that rationality itself compels such an extrapolation. And while you might argue that the reason religious believers resist such an extrapolation is because they are extremely motivated to defend their beliefs, there have been and continue to be several prominent atheists who have also argued that it is not scientifically justified — or particular helpful for the cause of science — for atheistic scientists to make such an extrapolations. For example such an ardent defender of the scientific point of view as Lawrence Krauss has argued that science itself should not be used to dispute untestable religious claims. You may not agree with his conclusions but you also cannot attribute his opinion to a strong desire to defend his personal religious beliefs.

To my mind part of the issue is to what end is such an extrapolation being applied. What is the aim of extrapolating the very successful approach of science to arenas where science has not so clearly applied itself as successfully? What is the desired outcome?

It seems to me that the purpose of the application of science to the physical universe is the understanding of the underlying nature of physical reality — that is to determine what is and is not objectively true.

But I think the case can be made that there are topics and issues where we might be properly motivated by considerations that have nothing specifically to do with whether something is objectively true or not. There are issues worth contemplating that are not related to anything really existing or not. I suspect this is the case for many people with regards to religious issues. This gets back to the “plausibility” vs. “worthiness” issue. I suspect that for some religious people — especially those that might fall more into the “liberal” end of the spectrum — the issue of whether there is evidence for god’s existence has much less relevance than the issue of the value that the religious experience provides.

Indeed, you have mentioned and promised to address the issue of the “net good vs. evil” issue of religion in the world, and I think this is quite a tricky knot to tackle, but for many people, I suspect further that the motivation to adopt a religious perspective has less to do with the net world social value of religion and much more to do with the perceived value of that perspective to the individual, and this value is the central issue in making the decision to adopt the religious perspective. In other words it’s a personal choice that is based on the attractiveness of the experience rather than on whether some particular claims are being made and if they are true or not.

I would also argue that this kind of value can be defended, even if the defense is not based on a “rational argument” as to whether some claim is true or not. As you have admitted before, we all have “irrational” viewpoints on a number of things. But I think that perhaps one can argue that this irrationality does not automatically reduce the value of the viewpoint. If one assumes that some perspective provides value for the individual, then this can be a “reasonable” basis for that individual deciding to adopting the perspective, even if the perspective cannot be judged to be “rational”.

For example, last night I went to a baseball game. I had a great time (despite the fact that the home team lost) and I would go again. But I cannot see any way to justify my attendance at the game from a scientific point of view. Why did I go? Because it was appealing to go. Why did I cheer for the home team? Certainly not because I have some illusion that they are objectively more deserving of my support and praise relative to their opponents. Rather, I cheered the home team because the ritual of sport is constructed this way and because by investing myself in the outcome I become more engaged in the game and find it more rewarding. When the game ends, and the home team loses, however, I am quite content to put aside the ritual and recognize that the value of ritual is simply the emotional reward of the game itself. I do not carry my investment in the home team around with me from day-to-day. I am not a “sports fundamentalist”.

Similarly, suppose a student is considering a life in pursuit of a career as a concert musician. I am thinking that such a decision would be difficult to defend on the basis of a scientific argument. The basis for making such a decision is not whether or not something objectively exists (except perhaps, musical ability). The issue is whether the pursuit of such a career is seen as worthwhile.

It’s further worth remarking that just because neither baseball nor music can be justified scientifically does not mean that either of these enterprises is intellectually valueless.

Nor are these activities free to operate in a way that contradicts or ignores the constraints imposed by the laws of science. Physics governs baseballs and oboes. But physics does not define the home-run. Physics does not define an “impressive” concerto. People do this.

In the same way, then, I think, that there can be particular religious perspectives (liberal ones, I would think) that can make a case for themselves for particular individuals based not on assertions of belief regarding the existence of god, but on the value that these religious perspectives can provide — a value that is more comparable to the value of a game of baseball or the value of a life committed to musical excellence than it is to the value of determining the age of a rock or the charge on a quark. In my opinion, if such a religious perspective is constructed in a manner such that its claims are not inconsistent with the demonstrated laws of science then it may be defended as “worthy” in this context. The example I mentioned before, where the traditions are interpreted metaphorically, not literally, and where the emphasis in on the artistic interpretation of the narrative — and not on any objective claims of belief about the physical or meta-physical nature of god — seems like one example of such an acceptable construct.

Finally, I would note that with such a liberal religious perspective, there is no claim on any kind of “literal truth”. Such a viewpoint rather explicitly recognizes that the narratives from one tradition may be more or less attractive and worthwhile, varying from person-to-person and from culture-to-culture. In other words, the liberal tradition embraces an ecumenical perspective where a diversity of religious viewpoints and traditions by others are accepted and even celebrated.


  1. Thought Shaman says

    Corbin’s reflections regarding people taking offense to arguments made by atheists follow four points:
    1. Trivializing comparisons – possibly due to the lack of empathy
    2. The rhetoric of persuasion
    3. Science as a philosophy is used to justify itself
    4. The limits of science and the argument for irrational impulses

    As always, I will try to be brief, but I hope to convey my ideas clearly.

    Regarding the rhetoric of persuasion, the problem revolves around the difference in goals and perspectives between believers and those who are not.
    -- For many atheists the results of their analysis need no further validation, while for many believers the analysis must be consistent with their religious experience. For atheists the analysis itself results in the goal, while for believers the goal is enhancing religious experience.
    -- Many believers have a different perspective of religion compared to those who are not. Here is a paraphrased rendering of an actual conversation with a believer friend I had some years ago. To him “religion was the basis for good thought and behavior,” to which my response was “religion ought to be the culmination of good thought, not its basis.” Extrapolating this, any argument that questions religious belief is very much an argument to persuade the believer to “step off their basis.” Atheists do not have this problem and often fail to recognize this in believers, attributing the same to a lack of analysis or ignorance. From an atheist perspective, it is often a case of “how can they not see the argument?”

    The different goals and perspectives between atheists and believers can lead to a perception of a lack of empathy even if the individuals mean well. It is not that the atheist is necessarily ignoring the believer’s concerns; they simply may not recognize that the believer often needs an explanation of 1) how to “regain” their basis in the face of contradictory evidence, and 2) how the results of analysis comports with their religious experience.

    Much of what people term rational has its inspiration in something irrational. The key is to understand the nature of such irrationality. Often, we ascribe to irrationality a domain similar to that of emotion. Acting emotionally is often the same as acting irrationally. The underlying question is how does emotion relate to the rational? To answer this question, I will draw on an argument from “The metaphysics of Star Trek,” wherein the author argues that the Vulcan, Spock is not bereft of emotion, rather he exhibits “higher order” emotions. Spock rarely exhibits anger or fear (his time during pon farr is the exception), but exhibits emotion such as compassion, and affection for friends. This is something that atheists forget to include in their argumentation. Atheists may find it beneficial to interact with religious people by appealing to “higher order” emotions such as compassion, rather than purely logical arguments.

    Corbin refers to science as a philosophy of the “purely rational.” However, this is not the case. Social mores, ethics, and tradition also shape the direction of scientific research and progress. For instance, Einstein’s famous “God does not play dice” comment expressed his reluctance to accept the indeterministic universe model posited by quantum mechanics (Okay, not a great example but I cannot recall other better ones).

    Further, while one may argue that science is a philosophy, it does not justify itself as Corbin asserts. Science utilizes a process of inquiry that is applicable across many domains of interest. However, this process of inquiry has become the cornerstone of science and we refer to it as the “scientific method.” The repeated application of the scientific method is how science evolves over time; it just does not “own” the scientific method.