Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Wrong General?

The "perverse and cruel atheist" (according to conservapedia)
Marquis de Sade in prison, 18th century line engraving.
The recent post by Ms Sarah Hippolitus on the foul and "violent" language used by blogger and biologist PZ Myers drew quite a bit of attention and responses. Unsurprisingly, the responses from both sides were emotional, and some insults were traded.
I think diversity of opinion among non-believers is by no means unexpected. If anything, organizing atheists has been likened to "herding cats". It turns out that disagreements exist among contributors of Secular Perspectives (Mathew Goldstein, for example, expressed a mixed opinion in the comments). I certainly do not agree with PZ on everything, but on the whole I think his views have been to some extent misinterpreted.

The title of the post calls him "general" Myers, presumably because he encouraged people to "assault heaven and kill god". And we are told "If I were a religious person and read some intellectual leader in the atheist community saying how he wanted to "assault heaven and kill god," I'd be alarmed by, and pissed off at, those angry atheists trying to ruin my life, and be ever more susceptible to church warnings that the atheists are out to get me."

But I think we are not giving people of faith enough credit. After all, anyone who can read, might care to check his blog and view the "general's attack plan":
"So how do you kill an idea? How will we sack the city of faith?
By coming up with a better, more powerful idea. That’s the only way we can win."
(As an aside, this reminds me of the claim that "every" person of faith would find the idea of the Flying Spaghetti Monster offensive. Whereas in reality, I have seen plenty of them commenting the it is just hilarious and there is nothing offensive about it).
So Myers is not advocating violence, and anyone with a minimum of intellect will recognize that. Is his choice of language the best? Probably not. But then, "inappropriate use of metaphor" is all he is guilty of.
So do New Atheists make people of faith see all non-believers in a bad light?
I am a skeptic and I would like to see some evidence for this claim. The null hypothesis at this point is that New Atheists have had no impact on the public perception of atheism. (If anything they may have had the opposite effect but that is a matter for another post).
Here are some examples. If George H. W. Bush, 41st US president, said "I don't think atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots", was that Myers or Dawkins's fault? Mind you, he said that as the sitting US vice president in 1987.
Let's face it. There are few references to atheists in public consciousness prior to the New Atheists arriving on the scene, and those few were pejorative ones; godlessness was associated first and foremost with the red scare.
Here is another example. According to a recent study, atheists are trusted about as much as...rapists! Can anyone say with a straight face this is New Atheists' fault? In all likelihood many of those who said that would trust rapists more than atheists hadn't ever heard of Dawkins, the most famous of New Atheists. But here is a gem: if you want a long litany of alleged lack of morality attributed to atheists, most of it from decades and centuries past, look no further than here. I am sure they wouldn't be spreading lies about it if it weren't for the poor choice of language by Myers!
We are told that "what we secular people desperately need is a strong humanist movement, and we need it now, before it's too late -- before PZ's cavalry arrives, and creates a chasm so wide between the religious and atheists that we've entirely alienated ourselves, which is never a good move for a minority group". I'm afraid that ship sailed long ago. The chasm was created long before PZ was born. If the military metaphor is apt, the "generals" were those who enriched themselves by telling the masses that disbelief is illogical, immoral, and leads to eternal damnation.

We are advised, "The very first thing you must always do with an intellectual “opponent” is find some common ground. That’s just basic psychology. Always start a debate with a point you both agree on. The point of all this is to reason with the religious effectively, right?" Well, to a point. With some there is no reasoning; Young Earth Creationists being a good example. It is not like it hasn't been tried; some of those who did just that ended up compromising their principles. Negotiating is good, but going overboard to the point of forgetting why you started negotiating is not so good.
Now time for some perspective. There are millions (billions?) of good Christians and Muslims who believe anyone who doesn't share their doctrinal creed will roast in hell for ever and ever. In other words, if Myers uses metaphorical language of "killing god" and presumably that alienates people, what about all of those people who believe in eternal torture? How is it that the Muslims and Christians together make up more than half of the world population? Wasn't anyone deterred by the such intolerant claims? Myers may be called intolerant, but he is less so than anyone who believe in a literal hell.
Lastly, it is said, "You'd better find some common ground with who you are angry with, if you ever hope to see the change you want." Well, here are some counter-examples. John Brown never sought common ground with those he was angry with, and yet he not only achieved what he believed in (albeit posthumously), he is remembered as a hero. Neither did Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose book, The Woman's Bible, is reviled by some believers to this day (just look at the comments left on Amazon site). This, even though she was as instrumental in the universal suffrage movement as her negotiating-type sister-in-arms, Susan B Anthony. If there is one thing to learn from the story of these two women, it is that the Stantons of the world that strengthen the hand of the Anthonys of the world at negotiation.
I would like to ask both Myers's critiques and his defenders to tone down the language and look more closely at the context. After all, we cannot possibly hope to have a constructive dialog with those who disagree with us on almost everything, if we cannot do among ourselves.


Anonymous said...

Good post. I too disagree with the notion that believers need to be handled with kid gloves, and I especially disagree that they need to do so even in blog posts that are aimed not at believers but at atheists. I was once not too long ago a believer, and it was the straight-talking books by Hitchens and Dawkins that helped me break away completely. Humanism is great, but it never would have succeeded in turning me away from religion. Nothing fully cleared the religious cobwebs from my mind until I saw religion mocked and openly criticized for all the valid reasons people do so. I think PZ and Dawkins provide a vital service to humanity. ~ Jennifer

Don Wharton said...

Thanks for your profoundly relevant comment, Jennifer