Respect? The defence to an atheist’s offence is defensiveness and offense

In talking with religious people, one thing I hear from many of them (conservative or liberal, devout or not)  is that their beliefs are personal.  These are things they believe truly, inside, and I have to respect that (that last bit is usually implied, rather than stated directly).

Well, OK.  So are my beliefs.  They are personal and I really believe them.  What does that have to do with respect?

Well, says the defender of such a person, it means that these beliefs are important to them and so we need to treat those people with respect.  And then we get into the whole argument about respect, distinguishing between having respect for the person and their beliefs, etc.  It is, says such a defender, not our place to tell them that their beliefs are wrong.

In such conversations there is a fair amount of talking past one-another, as well as a pinch of differing values and goals.  There is also a fair amount of those defenders missing the detrimental affects of such beliefs on people and society subsequently.  (BTW, I love this post about epistemological and moral values of new atheists)

I don’t want to discuss that issue specifically, but I want to raise another question instead.  When a Christian (or Moslem, Pagan, etc) receives questions or challenges about their beliefs, they often become defensive, offended, and become appalled at our lack of respect.  So, why don’t atheists react that way to their views being challenged?  Why do we, for the most part, welcome the discussion? And, perhaps most interestingly, why are we gnu atheists (in my experience) rarely challenged in a way that we have not heard before?  And why, further, do believers react as if they have never heard something like that before?

Could it be that the believers really have not thought those things atheists challenge them with before that moment?  Could it also be that atheists, specifically the gnu variety, have heard all (or at least most) of the challenges that a believer might bring up?  What does this say about the relative awareness and education about the philosophy of religion between atheists and believers? Well, at least one study has given a partial answer to this.

But more importantly, is it the case that the gnu atheists simply care more about challenging their own worldview? (perhaps not exclusively; I am sure there are quite a few non-gnus who share this quality as well).

All these questions paint the issue with a broad brush, certainly.  But I think a few observations are fair to point out:

Gnu atheists are more prone to critical examination of religious belief.  This is because they often started as religious and through education and thought found a way out eventually, a process which provides perspective, depth and breadth of thought on the topic, and a higher level of justified certainty than most believers have.  Others, like myself, never believed but grew up in a such a way as to be sensitive to the emotional, psychological, and intellectual affects of such beliefs.  We see how people are stunted by such a worldview and know humanity is capable of more (although perhaps only some).  Yes, there are some believers who have studied their beliefs, but it is much more rare that they have honestly studied the arguments of atheists or skeptics.  They have not taken the outsider test for faith, looking at their beliefs from the outside.  And even when they do try and see their beliefs from the outside point of view, it is often clear that they are missing the essential point of the criticism.   On the other hand, when you hear theists declare victory over atheists, more often than not they are pulling out the same old canards again and again.  This frustrates us quite often and possibly offends us (but only our hope for human rationality, not our sense of having been respected).

How often do we hear that we can’t disprove god? How often do we hear about Pol Pol, Hitler, and Stalin?  How often do we hear about TAG or Kalam? (let alone the Ontological argument, argument from design, etc?).  And if I hear Pascal’s wager again, I swear I’ll scream!  (“look at the trees!” *headdesk*)

Similarly, how often to believers hear the various replies to these arguments? And if they do hear them, how often are they really interested in hearing?  How many times have I seen eyes glazed over by anything I say in response to some lame attempt at apologetics? Too many!

I have said a number of times that if there is a god I want to know.  I think the question is important, and I want to know the truth about such things.  Despite this desire, I have found no reason to believe in such a proposed being, so I must conclude that one does not exist.  What other intellectually respectable choice do I have? I cannot prove that there is no god (except for very specific and well-defined gods which are logically impossible), but I see no reason to believe in one and so I do not.  This provisional conclusion is open for criticism and challenge, and I am baffled why most believers do not have this attitude towards their beliefs.  This personal thing that I conclude, these potential gods that I lack belief in, is as personal a thing as it gets.  So why am I not offended at being challenged?  And if I were offended, would the accommodationist assist me in defending my rights to believe what I want with the same vigor that they defend the believer now?  Would they demand respect of my beliefs with the same moral outrage? The irony, as I hope they might see, is that I would hope that they would not try to defend my respectability in this sense.  I don’t want the ‘respect’ they are offering.  Because acting as a shield to criticism is not respectful of people, it is only respectful of an opinion that may or may not be worthy of respect; we’ll only know upon analysis.

Analysis that the accommodationist tries to prevent in the name of respect.

The accommodationist’s flavor of respect is not actually respect, nor is it respectable.  From my point of view, it is ultimate disrespect for any pursuit of truth, human progress, or growth.

Gnuism: Is it tru? You’re a gnu!

(Not to be confused with this GNUism, which is also interesting and new.  As a writer, I may decide to find a way to combine the powers of these two concepts and take over the world….)

In recent months, there has been a lot of talk about ‘gnu atheism’ on much of the atheist blog-o-sphere, particularly by Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, and (of course) Ophelia Benson (among others).  Despite what some recent articles have ridiculously claimed, the title ‘gnu’ is a take on ‘new’ (as in new atheists), and is supposed to show how seriously we take this title (hint: not very).  As has been said by many people, including myself, there is little that is “new” about our atheism, it’s just that now we are getting more attention (and therefore actually being heard, which many people object to). We have always had this “strident and shrill” (as it is seen by some) tone, but in reality we are just after the truth, with kid-gloves off.

I suppose the new/gnu qualifier, while not being ‘new’ per se, allows us to distinguish us from other atheists in one regard.  PZ Myers seems to have encapsulated the distinction best when he said the following:

Gnu atheism is not simply about what isn’t. Our views do find expression in specific criticisms of specific faiths, but those are just the epiphenomena of a deeper set of positive values that [Stephen] Asma completely misses. Certainly I will make moral arguments against religious pathologies — Catholic priests raping children is bad — and I will judge beliefs by the foolishness of their explanations — creationist dogma is utterly absurd. But to say that is the guiding philosophy of atheism is to mistake the actions for the cause. I have one simple question you can ask of any religion, whether it’s animism or Catholicism, that will allow you to determine the Gnu Atheist position on it.

Is it true?

This is the bottom line.  Whether it makes you feel better, makes life feel worth living, or if it has pretty art, music, or rituals we want to know if it is true.  This has been a motivating question throughout my life, one that has alienated me at times.  In fact, this desire for truth is what led me to discover first that I was an atheist (had been all along) and later that I was what was being called a “new/gnu atheist”.  That is, there was no conversion or decision to join the ranks, this term just describe how I thought about the issues at hand.

But this question of “is it true” is relevant for more than religion, but also for many other things (astrology, homeopathy, etc).  And I am finding, as I navigate the world and think about various issues, that this is a strong motivator for me for many things (if not all things).  I find myself asking not so much whether this issue is helpful, pleasant, or even pragmatic, but whether it is true.  And this often causes me to rub against people in the wrong ways, as I’m sure is true for others with similar personalities.

I am hesitant (for once) to site a recent example that acts as the cause for these thoughts, because of the arguments that this example brings up are controversial and I have not clarified my position quite yet.  To reference the issue vaguely and analogously, I will say that my uncertainty of the truth of this question makes my questions appear as if I am trying to take a conservative stance on someone’s rights, when in fact I am asking if the action (and not their right to do that action) is one that even makes sense.  I’ll say that an analogy would be the scene from Life of Brian where Stan declares that he wants to have a baby.  The dialogue continues thus:

Judith: [on Stan’s desire to be a mother] Here! I’ve got an idea: Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb – which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’ – but that he can have the *right* to have babies.
Francis: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother… sister, sorry.
Reg: What’s the *point*?
Francis: What?
Reg: What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies, when he can’t have babies?
Francis: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.
Reg: It’s symbolic of his struggle against reality.

Now, I love this scene (and this movie), but the comedy here is sort of what I’m getting at at my vaguely referred-to issue.  What does one do when faced with a question of rights when the right might not make sense in the first place?  A question for another time, I think, but I’m going somewhere with that at some point in the future.

For now, what does this have to do with the term ‘gnu’?  Glad you asked, because I was getting off-track there.  I wonder to what extent the distinction between the gnu atheists and other non-gnus might be this preoccupation with the truth.  The desire to find whether something is true or not is certainly not universally shared (perhaps it is not even very common), and it creates a distinction between people who will apply their skepticism to most aspects of their life (perhaps applying universally is an impossible feat) and people who will forgo such skepticism from many aspects of their lives for various reasons, but including the desire to keep it away from things which may not be true but make them comfortable.

Perhaps, as a kind of coining of a term, one can detach the ‘gnu’ from the atheism and view this qualifier as an independent term which would imply a priority of truth.  As Matt Dillahunty has said on the Atheist Experience (and elsewhere), he wants to believe as many true things (and as few false things) as possible.  I agree with him, and this is a personality trait that Matt and I share, which is why I life listening to him so much…because he reminds me of myself, or something (not that I am totally self-absorbed).  And I think that those people who identify as Gnu atheists share this quality; it may be what distinguishes the gnus from the non-gnus.  And since this attribute is applied to more than their views on gods or religions, they are ‘gnu’ in more than a religious sense.  They are gnus generally.  They are, perhaps, Gnuists.

Now, one might say that this coinage is stretching a little, and I can see that.  Others might point out that this term is superfluous because the proper application of skepticism (which does indeed lead to atheism) is equivalent to this term in many ways.  I agree, but I sort of like the term used in this way for the single purpose that it acts to pull out this very issue of applying skepticism properly to all things (or at least trying to), rather than leaving it aside for some things (such as religion) as many in the skeptical community do.

A gnu is a person who wants to ask “is it true” about all things.  They are not accommodating any issue simply because it might avoid controversy or offend someone.  It will imply that they are an atheist (unless, of course, it can somehow be demonstrated that a god actually exists), but it also implies that they are asking “is it true?” to more than just gods.

Here’s a handy mnemonic device:  “Is it true?”, you’re a gnu!

Perhaps I should start a church of Gnuism.  It would be similar to my old idea to start a temple of Gnosis Dionysus, but with less Dionysian hedonism and more questions.  OK, you are right, let’s keep the hedonism.