On Tuesday, I wrote about my discussion with the Cleveland Freethinkers group. Today I want to spend some time on the issue of the Christian woman at the meeting who, right in the middle of a lively discussion on the relative merits of the accommodationist versus the new atheist positions, suddenly and tearfully interjected an extended statement about her strong belief in Jesus based on some unspecified personal experience.
While we were sympathetic with her and treated her outburst gently, it is precisely this kind of reaction that is used by religious believers to shut down criticisms of their beliefs. I am not suggesting that this was a devious plan of the woman in question. In fact, I think she was being genuine and spontaneous. But it is symptomatic of the problem of frankly discussing religion. Religious people have become so used to their views being given undue deference that they cannot deal with having them clinically analyzed and thus become upset.
When someone tearfully says in the midst of a rational discussion on science and religion that “I truly believe that Jesus is my savior” or gives as the basis of some crackpot belief (like the Earth is 6,000 years old) that this is what his faith tells him is true, and is clearly upset because the rest of us are not taking such beliefs seriously, what are we supposed to do? What has been expected of us in the past, and which is what I am afraid that the accommodationist position encourages, is to treat such outbursts as either a sensible contribution to the conversation and try and soothe the person’s wounded feelings or change the subject to avoid having to contradict someone’s sincerely held beliefs, thus effectively ending the discussion. This is precisely how religious beliefs have shielded themselves, by expecting us to accommodate the emotional beliefs and feelings of religious people, and treating them as things that cannot be directly challenged.
What we should really do when people say such things is say something like “Good for you! But what you sincerely believe in the absence of any credible evidence is not really pertinent to this discussion, so let’s move on, shall we?” In essence that is what the Cleveland Freethinkers group eventually did, although they took some time to do so because initially it was taken aback and spent some time trying to cater to the feelings of the Christian and not hurt them
The philosopher Richard Rorty grappled with this same question in a 1994 essay titled Religion as Conversation-stopper that I wrote about earlier. Rorty says that the silence that usually accompanies someone’s fervent statement about their religious beliefs “masks the group’s inclination to say, ‘So what? We weren’t discussing your private life; we were discussing public policy. Don’t bother us with matters that are not our concern.’ This would be my own inclination in such a situation.”
I think that is precisely what happened at the Freethinker’s meeting. The Christian’s outburst hijacked the discussion away from general policy to solicitousness for her feelings. Most of us clearly felt that the Christian woman’s testimony was not relevant but struggled to find ways to tell her so without making her cry even more, thus taking time away from the main focus.
What happened is the religious equivalent of what has been sarcastically referred to within the feminist movement as the ‘white woman’s tears‘ phenomenon, “the tendency of race and gender discussions among feminists to be derailed by white women into the pain the discussion is causing non-POC [person of color].” It is elaborated on in this poem by Native American poet Chrystos in the context of internal struggles within the feminist community.
That is precisely the response that we new atheists get when we criticize all forms of religion, moderate and fundamentalist. When we do so, the feelings of religionists are hurt and they start to cry. Not literally of course in the case of sophisticated religious moderates, because that would look obviously whiny and pathetic. Instead they cry in a metaphorical sense, by leveling the charge that the new atheists are ‘contemptuous’ of other people’s beliefs or ‘militant’ or ‘rude’ or ‘extreme’ or ‘shrill’ or ‘strident’ or ‘obnoxious’ or similar epithets.
These charges are rarely backed up with concrete examples of such alleged bad behavior or language, or that it is any more common than the disdain with which atheists are routinely portrayed by religious people. Their function is once again to seek to shift the discussion away from the credibility of religion and to soothing the wounded feelings of the person claiming to be aggrieved by the allegedly harsh rhetoric against religion, and to make the new atheists apologetic and on the defensive. The excellent comic strip Jesus and Mo has something to say about this.
Sorry, but new atheists have caught on to this crying game rhetorical gambit and it is not working any more. This does not mean that we will simply dismiss those who get upset but it is not going to mute us. The new atheists are here to stay and will continue to make their critiques of religion because the fact that science and religion are incompatible is backed by an overwhelming preponderance of evidence and logical arguments in its favor, while religious apologetics and theology is becoming increasingly desperate in its special pleading.
Religious moderates are just going to have to suck it up and deal with criticisms of their beliefs like adults.