Ideas and beliefs do not deserve respect

There is a discussion going on all over the internet about civility and belief.  There is a demand that people’s beliefs, ideas, and opinions be respected.  That idea is fundamentally wrong, and we need to get over it.

Ideas stand or fall on their own merits.  If they are respectable ideas, they will withstand any mockery, criticism, or down-right disrespect we can throw at them.  If they are not respectable, then we, as mature adults, need to be able to handle that.

Our ideas are not held for purely rational reasons.  I don’t care how intelligent you are, how well you have thought out your ideas, or even if you are Vulcan.  Our ideas are based upon emotional values that we have, which are beyond our control, and then we rationalize those opinions after the fact.  In many cases, those opinions can be rationally and skeptically justified, but it is not how we originally form most ideas.

If you care about the truth, then you should be able to mock your own ideas and hear mockery with the ability to remain rational. This is not to say that people will not be emotional in such cases, but that we all need to practice hearing mockery by challenging our own ideas so it does not make rationality impossible in the face of such criticism. The truth will attend to itself, whether we respect it or not.

If you don’t care about the truth, then why do you care if others respect your beliefs? If you don’t care about the truth, then you don’t respect your beliefs.  So why should anyone else?

We all, as adults, need to maintain a safe distance from our beliefs.  We should not make them sacred, protect them from criticism, or demand that people respect them.  To demand that ideas remain protected in such ways, we are telling people that we are less concerned with truth than with our comfort.  We are declaring that we don’t care if our ideas are true.  And, again, if truth doesn’t matter than other people’s respect is irrelevant.

This, above, is the essence of new atheism.  This is the essence to the new movement lead by people such as Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, and others who have been called “strident,” disrespectful, or unsophisticated.  Rather than defend them, I think we need to recognize that the charge is loaded with assumptions which need to be smashed open, criticized, and mocked.  The truth is that our various bad ideas, whether religious, political, or spiritual in nature, have survived because of the unwarranted demand for respect.

This bubble we create around our personal beliefs has become sacrosanct in the postmodern west.  It is certainly tied to modern liberalism, and certainly it is the weakest part of liberalism from where I stand (and I identify as a liberal).  We need to stop demanding respect for ideas until those ideas have survived skeptical analysis.

We need to distinguish between respect for ideas, legal protection of maintaining ideas, and people.  The first, that of ideas themselves, never deserves automatic respect; that respect must be earned by surviving criticisms both harsh and gentle.  Legal protection of ideas and of people do deserve respect, as we all have the right to our ideas and our ability to articulate them.

We just don’t deserve respect for those ideas automatically.  And by demanding it, we betray that we know that the idea might not survive criticism.

Criticism is not uncivil.


Individualism, association, and atheism

A recent post on Camels with Hammers about intellectual temptations atheists must avoid voices a lot of my thoughts better than I could. Fincke generally allies himself with the New Atheists, but often speaks out against the cruder and less thoughtful instances of New Atheist thought, in a way I really appreciate (since I’m basically in his position as well.) #6 in his list is one I’ve thought about a lot, and want to expand on somewhat here.

Atheists, on the whole, are a pretty individualistic bunch. Relative to the rest of humanity, they feel okay going against the grain, risking social pariah-hood, and rejecting customs that exist for the sole purpose of making humans feel more connected to each other. This makes sense: to adopt a position so counter to cultural norms, a person needs to have a pretty thick skin toward social disapproval. Individualism is a self-selecting quality for atheists in this day and age.

What I see happening a lot is that atheists conflate this individualistic personality trait with superior rationality. They care less about social approval and social bonding, they see that other atheists feel similarly and that people subscribing to all kinds of woo and religion care more about it, and they assume that caring about social approval and social bonding are in themselves less rational. So any time an attempt is made to incorporate community, ritual, and institutions which prioritize social bonding into an atheist frame, you get some voices pooh-poohing the attempt as worthless and meaningless and anti-rational. When someone confesses that they have difficulty leaving religion because of the inevitable social isolation, this is seen as a sign of weakness.

This point of view “I’m individualistic and rational, if you were rational you’d be individualistic too” ignores a basic fact of humanity: we are social animals. We were social animals before we were intellectual, inquisitive animals, and the rise of curiosity and higher-order intelligence did not erase that part of our nature. The social impulse is as valid a part of our humanity as the truth-seeking impulse, and to try to weed out either is to try to change the fundamental nature of humanity.

Humanity is greatly indebted to the individualists: they ask the questions no one else will ask, they think of things no one else has thought of, and they create new ways of being when no one else dares to try. But in doing this, they must also remember that they are statistical outliers: that if the rest of humanity is going to follow them, we’re going to transform the vision into something that meets our common need for connection and social order. This will always happen: this is the kind of beings we are.

I hear some individualists say, “Well, of course I understand that it’s hard to risk social rejection… I struggle with it too.” Yes indeed… individualism and the need for association are not mutually exclusive, and nearly all of us have elements of both. But what I would like more individualists to understand is that their need for association, while genuine, may be far less strong than another person’s. What, for you, was hard in the way running a marathon is hard, might for another person be hard in the way that climbing Mt. Everest is hard. We’re all calibrated differently; we all have different threshholds of need for different human necessities.

And yes, depending on social connection can be a bar to rationality. Of course it can. I’m a good example: several months after my initial deconversion, I was desperately searching for a way back into Christianity. Eventually I found a definition of “faith” I could accept, and I went with it, and continued calling myself a Christian for several years. It wasn’t until I began dating an atheist that I could call myself an atheist again, and that’s not a coincidence. I wanted back in because I was lonely. Because all the people who loved me were Christians, and I felt hopelessly cut off from them — even though they still loved me, I needed a sense of belonging. I couldn’t hack it as an atheist on my own. My need for social connection guided my intellectual investigations, and biased me towards one conclusion.

So, a need to “belong” can influence and distort rational thinking. You know what else can influence and distort rational thinking? A need to be smarter and more correct than other people… a personality trait that self-selecting atheists are overall in no shortage of. The wise, mature ones acknowledge this tendency, recognize how it can bias them, and find ways to minimize its effect. Similarly, I’ve come to acknowledge my profound need for social connection, recognize how it can bias me, and find ways to minimize its effect. One thing that doesn’t work is deciding to care less. That only leads to self-deception.

There are a lot of people who are socially dependent to a degree that cripples them, that cuts them off from acknowledging truths that would improve their lives. A LOT of people. But the way to self-improvement, for many, is not to become diehard individualists, but to become more thoughtful and choosy in the ways they form and maintain their social bonds. The diehard individualists would do well to remember this.

On absolute truth and those disrespectful accommodationists

I could not have looked for a better way to sum up the difference between Gnu Atheists and fundamentalist theists on the one hand, and liberal ideologues of all stripes on the other, than this quote from Alain de Botton:

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

De Botton is an atheist, but he thinks there’s a lot of useful and interesting stuff in religion, which he goes on to discuss. All well and good, and I agree with him that there is much about religion that’s “useful, interesting, and consoling,” — in fact I myself am still looking for ways to fill some of the holes that leaving religion has left in my life (no, none of them are god-shaped.) But through all the changes I’ve been through, there’s never been a point where I wouldn’t have been deeply offended by the claim that the question of religion’s truth or falsehood is “boring.”

De Botton’s position is very familiar to me. A lot of people, both religious and non-religious, have moved into a space of being fairly indifferent to the actual nature of the universe, and instead seeing religion as purely a social institution or personal mythology. Whatever works for you… all paths lead to God… I believe this, but you don’t have to… they’re all ways of saying the same thing: it doesn’t matter what’s actually true. This is compatible with a lot of religions, as well as with atheism or agnosticism, but it is absolutely incompatible with the monotheistic Abrahamic religions (and perhaps others that I’m less well familiar with.)

In a lot of ways the “I don’t care what’s true” stance is a big improvement, particularly in its social effects. But a key tenet of people who embrace it is not offending anybody, and what they fail to see is that that statement is profoundly offensive to those who do think truth matters. It’s worse than dissent, worse than disagreement: it’s invalidation. It’s saying “I reject the entire foundational concept of your belief. I think the things that are most important to you about your religion are irrelevant.”

A few days ago the story about Mormons baptizing deceased Jews got around, and my take on it was somewhat unusual. If I truly believed that a posthumous baptism was going to gain somebody an (optional) admittance to the eternal kingdom of God, I’d probably do it too! Being the compassionate literalist I am, I’d probably devote a major portion of my life to doing it — if I truly believed. That’s the gift of eternal life, people! Am I going to refrain from giving it just because somebody gets offended? To the extent that these baptisms are being done out of a sincere belief in their efficacy, and not for one of a host of other reasons religious rituals are practiced (I know nothing about the church politics around posthumous baptisms), I can’t fault them for doing these; from their viewpoint, it’s the absolute right and loving thing to do.

I pointed this out on facebook, and somebody responded, “But the people being baptized didn’t believe in the Mormon afterlife!” Which is colossally missing the point. The Mormons doing the baptisms do believe it (I assume, giving them all possible credit.) And under that belief, it doesn’t matter whether what afterlife the other person believed in: your belief is true, and you are helping them to eternal life despite their erroneous beliefs.

The happy, harmonious, multicultural view of religion whereby it’s all just social institution and personal mythology and nobody’s beliefs have a real impact on their life, death, and afterlife is completely ineffective in dealing with people who sincerely belief in the objective truth of their religion. I know; I used to be one. People who stood in that viewpoint appeared hopelessly naive and logically impaired to me. The statement “My religion is objectively true and has real-life consequences” cannot be effectively countered with “To each their own, whatever works for you.” The literalist believer will, at best, dismiss the religious pluralist with an annoyed shrug, and go on literally believing. As long as there are people who say “My religion is objectively true,” there will and should be non-believers who say, “No, it is objectively false,” and I think — have always thought — that those non-believers are giving the believers a hell of a lot more respect than any accommodationist.

Truth and honesty as indicators of respectibility

It has been asked of me, more than several times over the years, why I care so much about what people believe.  Why can’t I just live and let live.  Well, I do.  It’s just that I don’t think that living and letting live necessarily involves not asking why people live the ways they do.  I’m not stopping anyone from living by wondering why they live the way they do.

I have said it many times, but the truth is important to me.  This is not to say I assume that all my beliefs are true, only that I try to believe things for good reasons.  I try to have evidence, or at least good reason, for accepting ideas as true.  So, if I do believe something I do think it’s true, but realize that I might be wrong and so I maintain an open mind about that possibility.  This necessitates listening to criticism, going out of my way to challenge ideas (both mine and others’) in the face of dissenting opinions.

This skepticism of mine is part of my life project to be honest, open, and direct with the people around me.  It is a value of mine to live authentically, which for me means that I don’t hide who I am to people, try not to allow self-delusion to survive within myself, and be open about my strengths and my faults. I challenge others because I challenge myself.

One implication of this is that I don’t want cognitive dissonance to exist within my mind, and don’t happily tolerate it in others.  I don’t want to have ideas which are in methodological or philosophical opposition to one another, and I am sensitive to it in others.   Cognitive coherence is a goal at which I will inevitably fail, but I strive for it nonetheless because to do otherwise is to capitulate to intellectual and emotional weakness.

Another implication is that I do not respect the idea that an opinion or view “works for me” as being sufficient to accept it as true.  I actually care what is really true, not merely what coheres with my desires.  This attitude is essential for a healthy skepticism.  The desire to apply skeptical methodology to all facets of reality (sometimes referred to as “scientism”) is a value of mine, and I think it should be a value for everyone.

And this is why meeting someone who has little inclination towards this skepticism, who believes things which are not supported by evidence and do not care to challenge them, raises flags for me.  It is, in fact, reason for me not to trust them.

Now, wait (you may be saying).  How does being non-skeptical about things make a person untrustworthy?

Well, it does not make them completely untrustworthy.  It would not necessarily mean that I could not trust them to watch my bag while I run into the bathroom or have them feed my cats while I’m out of town.  No, it merely means that I will have trouble accepting some claims they make.  It makes me trust them less intellectually.

They have already demonstrated that they are capable of being comfortable with cognitive dissonance, or at least in holding beliefs uncritically.  They have demonstrated that they have less interest in holding true beliefs than holding comfortable ones.  So if they were to claim some knowledge, opinion, etc I would be in my skeptical rights in having some issue with their trustworthiness.

This, of course, does not mean they are wrong.  People with all sorts of strange ideas can be right about other things.  It means that I would be more willing to demand argument or evidence for their claims, since they have already compromised their credibility in my eyes.

It also makes it harder to actually respect them, as people.  It makes it less likely I will want to become closer to them personally.  In potential romantic partners, unskeptical attitudes and beliefs are a turn off, for example.  Beliefs in astrology, psychic powers, homeopathy, wicca, or even some aspects of yoga are indicators that a person may not be a new best friend or romantic partner.

Such beliefs are indicators that while we may get along well enough socially or in light conversation, our goals in life are incompatible.  As a result, there is only so close I am willing to get because the attitude they take to the truth makes them vulnerable to deception.  They have not exercised critical thinking to themselves or the world, and it seems likely that they may not know themselves well enough emotionally and/or intellectually and therefore are more likely to subject themselves, and thus people they are involved with, to undesirable situations.

This is not to say that people who believe these things cannot be educated or better informed, only that until they are willing to critically challenge such things they will occupy a place in my head of lesser reverence.

So, call be judgmental, elitist, and arrogant if you like.  But I will judge unsupported ideas as flawed, consider demanding higher intellectual standards as preferable, and do not think that pride in these standards to be unwarranted.   I am judgmental (so are you, so is everyone.  I am just honest about it).  I am elitist, and I don’t care if it offends your sensibilities.  But arrogant? Well, I don’t think my ideas of self-importance, based upon my standards, are unwarranted. I think they help to make me a better person.

I’m honest, I care about what is true, and I hold myself up to high standards.  If you don’t care about these things, then I likely don’t respect you.  Live with it.


Respect: ideas, people, and rights. (A message for accommodationists and ecumenical theologians)

Edit: Me, being a horrible boyfriend, did not notice that my lovely lady-friend posted about respect yesterday.  She makes some good points as well.


One complaint from the religious and accommodationist alike is that we gnu atheists do not demonstrate respect for religion.  We say critical things about the doctrines of various beliefs, we are strident, and we are arrogant.  There are a number of points to be made in favor of a direct and critical approach (and many have made them in addition to my own comments), and one of them is to make a distinction between respect for an idea and respect for a person.  I want to take this idea and expand it a little; I would like to explore the distinction of respect for ideas, people, and rights.

Respect for Ideas
One issue I have with a number of people who are not comfortable with criticism of people’s beliefs is the issue of whether they actually respect another person’s beliefs.  Very often I will hear a person who does not share a religious belief with someone else say that they still respect their belief.   I am not sure this is true, at least in the sense I am using the word ‘respect’ here; I think what is being confused here is a respect for their right to believe what they want, not for the belief itself.  The issue for me, here, is whether it is possible, or even conceivable, to respect an idea that you don’t accept as true.

Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead after having been tortured, crucified, and placed in a tomb.  I find this claim to be unbelievable.  The evidence that would be required to accept such an extraordinary claim are not present, the circular logic of the Bible being a trustworthy source is insufficient, and all I know about nature does not make such an event probable.  As a person who does not accept this belief as a possibility, is it meaningful to say that I can respect it?  Now, I must clarify; I am not saying that the belief should be mocked (necessarily), that a believer of such an idea should be disrespected, or anything like that.  I’m asking if the idea is itself respectable.   To put it more clearly, if the idea were encountered on its own, say if it were read on a piece of paper outside of the context of someone who may or may not believe in it, then could one think it respectable?

With this particular belief about Jesus, I would say that it is not respectable because it does not pass a rational test for probable occurrence.  But it is conceivable to have ideas that I don’t accept as true to be respectable in themselves.  Someone may have an idea that mint/chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla, and I don’t agree (I hate the combination of mint and chocolate).  But this opinion is respectable because it is consistent with probable facts (it is conceivable and probable that people like this combination of flavors) and it is an opinion based upon a distinct set of physiological states of body that differ from mine; some people just prefer other flavors of ice cream.

More to the point it is respectable for someone to believe that Jesus was a real historical person.  I also happen to not be convinced of this proposed fact, but it is not an extraordinary claim; even if the New Testament is fiction almost completely, it is possible that the mythological literature that resulted was based on a real person who may or may not have been named Jesus (or Yeshua) but whose last name was certainly not ‘Christ’ (as this is the Greek word for the Hebrew word which we use today as Messiah, or ‘annointed one’).  A person who inspired the letters of Paul, the gospels, etc could have really existed; I think this is a respectable position to hold, even if I disagree with it.

But religious ideas are not like opinions of taste, nor are they only about opinions about the existence of historical persons.  Even if Jesus (or Yeshua) existed, the stories of miracles, divinity, etc are still up for grabs and in need of evidence and argumentation to be respectable.  We have different emotional needs, desires, etc about how we live our lives, but religious claims are not just about our emotional needs and desires for fulfillment; they are claims about reality, indeed often about the nature of that reality, and not just historical facts about it.  While for many people the different religious perspectives are akin to the various needs and desires that human beings have, and talking about those differences is like exploring the varieties of human experience with their ‘spiritual’ side or whatever, they are more than that.  Religious beliefs are more than mere metaphors for many people, and even when they are metaphors they are often still contradictory and not respectable.  That is one of the differences between the gnu atheists and most other people; we care about what is true, not what feels good or fulfills some need.  So when we say that we don’t respect an idea, we are saying that we don’t accept the idea as probable or even believable.  We are not commenting (at least not necessarily) on whether the idea should not be meaningful to you or give you some access to poetic beauty, we are saying that the idea does not seem possible to be true and in coherence with reality.

Respect for people

Whether or not we respect the ideas that people have, it is also possible to respect the actual person.  I may disagree with you, agree with you, or perhaps be unsure whether we agree due to some uncertainty of your or my belief, but that little to do with what I think about you.  Now, I have criteria for what I think makes a good person.  For me, it is a desire to be self-challenging, honest, and so forth.  These qualities are things I respect in a person.  I prefer a Christian who is willing to have a frank and open discussion about religion to an atheist who thinks the issue should not be discussed ever.  I prefer a staunch conservative who will listen and respond to issues politic than a liberal who toes the party line and refuses to listen to another opinion.  I prefer people who are wiling to go beyond themselves than to surround myself with an echo-chamber of agreement and demonization of the other.  I want not only to challenge, but to be challenged.  And I want to be around similar people.

A respect for another person, from another person’s point of view, will probably differ depending on what values that person has.  Another person may judge someone else based upon the empathy, kindness, and selflessness.  But what is important to recognize here is that this judgment occurs.  All to often I hear that we should not judge other people (having grown up in a very liberal Quaker environment, I heard this nearly every day).  But this is simply not possible.  Even a Christian who believes that judgment is for their god to make and not them, they are making a judgment.  No, it’s not a final or meaningful judgment in a cosmic sense, but all people evaluate the behavior, opinions, and accomplishments of other people and make judgments about them.  To say otherwise is a form of delusion and is not being honest with themselves; so obviously someone who values honesty will not respect that.

We all judge one-another and we all have varying criteria for making such judgments.  Whether we have respect for other people will depend on these values and will have little to do with the ideas those people have, although their is a relationship between a person’s behaviors, temperament and their opinions to some degree.  The bottom line is that a person’s opinion about religious or political matters will not necessarily tell you if you will respect them.

Respect for people’s rights

I may not agree with you or even like you, but I would be willing to fight for your right to say what you believe openly.  I think that freedom of expression is just about the most important right we as people can defend.

I have respect for people’s rights to belief what they want.  Well, belief is not really subject to the will, so I have respect for what people do believe and to speak openly about those beliefs.  But this respect has to be 2-way; Religious believers of all kinds have the right to their beliefs and to express them.  At the same time, those of us who disagree, think those ideas harmful, etc have the right to have our criticism heard on equal terms.  That is, no governmental power need help disseminate either view, support either view, or even address either view.  Religion should not get any support from the state, nor should the criticism of it receive any support or be silenced by any state.  The state should be simply neutral on such questions, and either support all or neither (the latter being the simplest and probably most wise choice).

You have a right to believe in Jesus, Harvey the 8-foot invisible bunny, or Xenu the galactic emperor.  You have every right to hold whatever ritual you want to (so long as it is not breaking secular law, infringing the rights of non-believers, etc), believe whatever doctrines you want, and to talk about, publish books and other literature about, and even produce audio and video media about your beliefs.  We don’t have to listen, of course, but you can do those things.  And we also have the right to respond to those ideas with ideas of our own (And no, nobody has to listen to us either).  I’m simply not sure how much religious believers would be willing to fight for my right, as an atheist (especially of the gnu variety) to speak my opinions.  I know there are some out there who would, and I respect them (as people) for that, but I also know many would not be willing to do so, and they have some help from the accommodationists.

The respect for the rights of believers is a road of many ways.  You have the right to your beliefs, and I have mine; even if my belief is that you should not have yours or that yours is stupid.  Nobody has to implement my opinion or agree with it, but I have a right to it.  My beliefs are that religion is here to stay for a long time, but I should be able to say what I want about religion.  You don’t like that? I don’t really care.

The Combination of respects

All three of these types of respect differ in ways that will be expressed differently in response to different people and their ideas.

I don’t respect Fred Phelps’ ideas, him as a person, but I do respect his right to hold them and promulgate them.  I am severely annoyed by his tactics, but he and his family/church have a right to them and to say them.  Perhaps we should just ignore them, but we don’t and they keep at it.  Fuck Fred Phelps, but he has the right to be a fucktard and I have the right to ignore him or call him a fucktard.

I respect some of the ideas (especially about the truth of religion, which they rarely address) of many accommodationists.  I tend not to respect them as people, although there will be exceptions, because their temperament is one of dishonesty, faux respect, and politics-playing.  I respect their right to their beliefs.

I respect many of the ideas of the gnu atheists out there, but certainly not all.  what I appreciate is that this disagreement is welcome among the gnus (I hope in all cases).  Thus, I tend to respect them as people as well, but there will be exceptions to this of course.  I respect their right to their beliefs and will continue to fight for the right to say those ideas.

I don’t respect blasphemy laws.  There is no right not to be offended, and to try and make it illegal to say certain things about religious beliefs is short-sighted and harmful to free expression.

I don’t respect liberal theological attempts at universal ecumenicalist worldviews; I find them absurd and short-sighted as well.  Religious traditions have real differences and contradicting goals, interpretations, and values.  To try and ignore these and find what is in common is good for sharing of ideas towards understanding, but ultimately the cafeteria-style picking and choosing of beliefs becomes absurd because it diminishes the importance of the scriptural and traditional sources and makes them mere human ideas (which they are) which undercuts the very tradition they are trying to respect.  The progressive idea that religion is merely a means of self-expression and window into our own spiritual journeys is a relatively new idea, and it cannot be reconciled with all religious views, thus the enterprise is self-defeating.  By trying to respect religion, they are actually disrespecting what the majority of religious believers actually believe.

This is an irony that seems to be missed by intellectual and academic theologians who want the various institutions of religion to be the beautiful thing which they themselves have created out of the various corpses of the religious traditions they had to kill to attain such a perspective.  This type of humanism would be better as a secular activity, which is part of what accommodationists are trying to do.  But in both cases they are ignoring the truth that the religious traditions they have slain to get their worldview still exists around them and is being dragged through history by legions of literalists, moderates, and others who still really believe, not merely as a metaphor, that their god(s) are true and that their will(s) are absolute.  Dangerous ideas!

There are a plethora of ideas about religion out there, and such ideas are part of the larger conversation about religion.  But they need to be directly addressed, and not merely thrown aside or minimized in an attempt to create some ecumenical pulp that is but a shade of the source from which they were extracted.  This only seeks to kill the religion and the truth at the same time.  Good luck with that, accommodationists and ecumenical theologians.

I’ll finish with a short story about an event that I witnessed recently among some friends and acquaintances.  Some liberal Christian people I know held a book-burning recently.  They took some conservative books from their conservative parents and burned them in disgust for the ideas contained within.  This, in my opinion, is the exact opposite way to deal with ideas.  Do not destroy them, hide them, or simply ignore them; face them, challenge them, and demonstrate the absurdity of them.  If you can’t do that, perhaps that says something interesting in-itself.  Perhaps one of the reasons many liberal Christians simply toss aside or physically destroy the carriers of ideas held by conservative Christians is that in some way they cannot directly confront them; they are too much like their own.  And the conservative/literalists will tend to have a significant percentage of scripture to back up their discrimination of the queer community, even if they can’t back up their conservative politics.  Their is a real battle between what a lot of scripture says about things and what a lot of liberal religious people value, and so it is difficult for liberals to directly confront their conservative parents, neighbors, and acquaintances.  The only real way to do this is to simply leave religion behind and not use any authoritative source for truth.  Freethought is still the best option for either liberal or conservative values, as it does not tie you to any doctrines or truths.  You only need to follow the evidence, not any book.

I think that one of the reasons that liberal theologically-minded people, accommodationist atheists, and other mainstream people are so annoyed by both gnu atheists and many literalistic religious people is that we are actually concerned with what is actually true.  Many other people are concerned with what their emotional needs and desires are; what makes them comfortable.  I think this is part of the reason that the issue of respect gets so thorny.  People’s ideas are so-often a reflection of their values, and we are not supposed to disrespect people’s values.  But the truth is that I don’t respect many people’s values, and neither do they respect mine.  As liberal and progressive people, many literally do not respect each-others values, even when one of their values is to respect other people’s values.  This fact goes a long way for me, and perhaps is a bane for many others.

So, let’s stop the pretenses of respect and start really talking about our beliefs.  Respect, for me, starts with honesty, not treating other adults with different ideas like emotionally insecure children.  My disagreeing with your belief is not disrespect, but people trying to shut critics up is disrespect because they are not allowing us the right to our beliefs.  Respect is really only relevant when it infringes on the ability to practice what we believe, and ironically it is the accommodationist and the ecumenical types that do this while pointing the finger of blame at their target.

Oh, the irony!

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.

Why “these beliefs work for me” is not enough

I get into a lot of arguments with people.  Sometimes, the argument gets ugly, and sometimes it is not.  I’m just one of those people that cares about what is true, and so when someone says something I find to be unjustified or that I  have reasons to disagree with, I often say something.

This often leads to me being called “closed minded,” arrogant, etc.

Just in the last couple of days I have had an email correspondence which started on a polyamory discussion list with someone who seems to consider himself spiritual, and who commented that he has become more serene since he stopped arguing with religious people (it was this and some other things I’ve been annoyed by that led to yesterdays blog about spiritual but not religious people).

I was offended by a comment he made, and tried to explain why I was offended, but it didn’t stick for him.

In any case, I wrote him back late last night, and thought some of the points I made would be relevant to people that might run into this blog.

With no further yapping on my part, here is the entire email:

I am quite aware that your email was not about me.  I was replying to the content that I disagreed with.  My offense at your comment needs some unpacking for you to understand why I was offended.  I’ll get to that at the end of this email.

First I want to say that I notice among many people, in fact this seems to be common wisdom, an unspoken assumption about beliefs.  There seems to be a notion that there is an automatic validity to a belief simply because it works for people, or simply because they have it.  Yes, people rely on things, but I don’t believe it is enough to say that they rely on it and therefore it’s not my place to judge it or even to comment on it.  After all, people have a right to their beliefs, right?

I believe this idea is wrong-headed.  And, more importantly, I don’t think it’s true just because I believe it.  This speaks to the unspoken assumption above.  I have this belief for reasons, not just because it works for me.  This is the crux of the issue for me; I think that people’s beliefs should be justified rationally, or they are not worthy of respect by anyone else.  Of course people have a right to their beliefs, but they don’t have the right to not have their ideas criticized.

An acquaintance and personal favorite leader in the atheist community has become known for asking “What do you believe, and why do you believe it?”  I think this is an important question, and I think that in the attempt to be tolerant, diverse, and respectful this question often gets left behind in the cultural maelstrom (especially in liberal circles).

You said:

Just because you “vehemently view spirituality as meaningless” doesn’t mean that it is. In fact its one of the biggest driving forces in the human experience for many. The fact that you got so offended may suggest that its not quite as meaningless to you as you say.

This, I believe, is a symptom of the problem.  It’s not merely that I believe this, I believe this for reasons.  I am not merely asserting it and saying that it’s true.  It’s not that this idea works for me, it’s that I think it can be defended rationally.  But you didn’t address the content of the claim at all.  I find that to be fascinating, because I would hope that a claim I make would not merely be swept aside with the broom of ad populum, but rather challenged.  Why wasn’t it challenged?

Your comment was not a challenge as to the merit of the proposition or to content therein, but rather to whether it was an idea that worked for people.  The fact that it is a driving force for people has absolutely nothing to do with its validity.  Truth is not determined by what ideas people like, and it is truth that I am interested in.  I am offended by the apparent shrugging off of pursuits of truth in the name of mere pragmatism.  These issues are questionable, investigatable, and conclusions can be drawn with good evidence.  The fact that people use these ideas in their lives does not make them immune to the criticism that can be provided.

I believe that they are physical events in the brain too but who’s to say that our brains weren’t wired like that in order to produce that spiritual experience by a creator? I believe that science and spirituality should be joined at the hip instead of being in opposition and I think fortunately things are headed in that direction.

I cannot [dis]prove that such a creator exists who created our brains such.  But I see no cause to believe it.  What if the world were created by an invisible pink unicorn, a flying spaghetti monster, or blue dwarfs that currently live in my closet?  I can’t disprove those ideas either, but why should I believe any of them?  The issue is not whether I can disprove the idea of such a creator, the question is what evidence is there for belief in such a thing?  What would compel me to believe it? My whims and what works for my life are not relevant here.

Until there is some reason to believe so, it is rational to not believe.  It’s called the null hypothesis.  Do you believe in the dwarfs in my closet?  if not, why not?  Who is to say they don’t exist? I’m betting you don’t believe in them, and I don’t consider it respectful to say “hey, whatever works for you.”  I find this condescending and disrespectful of my ability to think critically and take criticism.   If I believe something you find unjustified, why would you pretend otherwise and merely shrug it off? That’s how we treat children, not adults.  Our beliefs affect the decisions we make, and unjustified beliefs often lead to decisions that affect the world around us.

As for science and spirituality, they are not necessarily at odds.  The simple fact is that they are at odds through investigation, that is by accident of the beliefs of spiritual people not standing up to scrutiny.  And when they are not at odds with science, the thing stops being called spiritual but is then called part of the confirmations of science.  It is like the difference between medical science and alternative medicine; when it works, it’s simply called science and no longer is alternative.  The claims of spiritualism have been tested and have failed repeatedly.  There is no counter-example I have ever seen to this claim.  Look into James Randi’s million dollar challenge.  The fact that nobody has won it is telling.

And no, things are not headed in the direction of science and spirituality being reconcilable.  Despite what morons like Deepak Chopra and the other goons at HuffPo say, there is most definitely a distance between them.  Some, like the Templeton foundation, will seem to say otherwise, but the arguments are spurious.  If you are curious about ths issue, I suggest the JREF (linked above), the Paryngula blog, or the general skeptics community (say the skepchicks blog).

I’m not a religious scholar by a long shot. All I know is my own personal experience. And I know that I became a much more serene person when I stopped vehemently opposing religious people (still struggle with Fox news types). They aren’t all the same.

I am a student of the philosophy of religion.  In fact, that is what I have my MA in.  This does not make me right, but it implies I have spent considerable time thinking about these things. But that does not matter….  I have experiences too.  I used to wonder if they were spiritual in nature, but then I seriously investigated this question, and found that such an explanation is not rationally warranted.  It is not enough to say that you have a different conclusion, you need to demonstrate why or I have no reason to respect your ideas.

The fact that you became more serene person when you stopped opposing religious people says nothing for the validity of whatever spiritual ideas you took on since then.  When a person changes through experience with a new religion, spiritual tradition, etc it does not imply that the ideas they adopted did the changing or that those ideas are true.  That’s simply a tremendously bad argument.  And of course they are not all the same, although there are often common characteristics among them.

There are plenty of good, strong, intelligent people who believe in a higher power on this planet. To paint them all with the same broad stroke is as close minded as a fundamentalist is about non-fundamentalists.

I have never done this.  I am very aware that people who believe such things vary greatly, and I try as much as possible to try and address what they specifically claim and address those claims.  What I am saying is that insofar as a person accepts faith as a strength, I think that it points to a problem.  People use faith in many ways, for many beliefs, and with different temperaments.  But we have to step back and ask what faith is.  It is belief in something despite a lack of evidence or in the face of contradictory evidence.  If there were evidence, there would be no need for faith, because there would be reasons to believe.  personal, internal experiences are not enough for other people, and they do not provide evidence that you have not misinterpreted your experience and attributed it to something imaginary rather than a more mundane and material explanation.  Until someone gives reasons to believe in spiritual ideas, people have to rely on faith and problematic personal experiences.

This is incontrovertibly a weak position to be in intellectually and rationally.  If it isn’t, please explain why it isn’t.

My view is not closed minded, it is considered and measured.  I think that believing in things for which their is no, or at least poor, evidence is not an intellectual, personal, or social strength.  How is that closed minded?

Finally, why was I offended.  I was offended because we atheists are tired of hearing that things like morality, personal strength, and wisdom come from divine or spiritual sources.  It implies that those who don’t believe in such things cannot be moral, strong, or wise.  By associating spirituality with good attributes, you imply that people like me are not capable of it.  If I were to say that all the people I know who are strong, wise, and good were atheists and that atheism is the key to being like those people, would you not take offense at the implication inherent to this?

This is simple discrimination of people who don’t believe in the kinds of things you believe.  It is based on faulty assumptions and poor logical thinking, and it leads to real discrimination, demonization, and distrust of atheists.  Recent studies have shown atheists to be the least trusted group in America (even below Muslims).  I’m offended because you essentially claimed that an atheist cannot be a good person.  I doubt this was your intent, but it is the result nonetheless.  I’m just trying to give you a touch of consciousness-raising about discrimination against atheists and its unseen sources in common wisdom, as evidenced by your comment.  You are doing actual harm to real people, probably unintentionally, by promoting a meme that is simply false.

Please understand that I’m trying to communicate in good…faith.  I’m not attacking you, I’m trying to get you to understand where I’m coming from.

His reply was to say “You’re right” and then to sign off.  I can’t help but feel patronized with an intent to discontinue conversation.


Growth: the result of challenged insecurities and fears

The longer we go in not challenging ourselves and others, the longer we will continue to live in a world that will crawling towards progress.

We are weak, insecure, fearful, and habitual people. I speak primarily of Americans, because that’s the culture I live in, but I think it is true everywhere to some extent. We are afraid of challenging the mythological assumptions of the world around us. Most believe that faith is good, monogamy is the default, and that success is more important than integrity. We believe these things because the structure of the culture that dominates the world is populated by people that were taught these things and perpetuate these things. Thus, in some perverted sense, they are practically true because they are tradition.

But what is the basis for these beliefs? How many times have I heard that to not believe in something, to simply believe that the world in blind processes without the faith in a god, some paradise, or at least some ultimate meaning, then life is not worth living. Fucking bullshit.

People believe such things because they have never challenged themselves to actually think about this seriously. People are emotionally attached to their beliefs, and so their is a kind of pain when some fact, idea, etc comes to mind that contradicts their worldview. More common is the cognitive dissonance that arises in people who accept contradictory ideas.

Then there are the insecure, lazy, and ignorant hypocrites of the world;

Sunday Christians (those that really are only god-fearing at church, and otherwise don’t give a rats ass except when they meet an atheist). You have never really challenged yourself to figure out what you might really believe if you looked at the claims of your religion. You rely on the support group of the others around you (many of which are using you for the same thing), and have probably never even read your holy book.

Monogamous couples who cheat. You know very well that you want more people in your life sexually, and most even still love their spouses. Yet when you are asked what is wrong with polyamory you say it’s wrong, unnatural, or “not for me.” When you say it’s not for you, you mean its not for your partner, or that you don’t have the guts to open yourself up to the jealousy and insecurity that come with thinking about sharing yourself and your loved ones. Yes, there are some people who just make poor choices and really aren’t into being poly, but I think that a lot more of you out there are just scared, insecure, and fearful of the concept of you not being enough for someone else.

The worst part is that we don’t talk about these things. Religion and politics. Ok, sex too, at least insofar as challenging the fantasy of the soul-mate or the “one for me” mythology; the things that we are not supposed to talk about. Bullshit. The only reason that is true is because when we do, we expose the insecurities and fears of those that refuse to challenge themselves. We tell ourselves that we do it out of respect, but respect for what; Insecurity and fear?

Stop allowing your fears, as well as the fears of those around you, from preventing these discussions. Challenging the worldviews of people we disagree with (hopefully after honestly considering your own position), is how we can help our culture grow out of this insecure and fear-ridden infancy.

Grow up, and help the world around you grow up.