Saturday, May 23, 2009

Insults, criticism and intolerance

One of the chief complaints against the "New Atheists" is that we're strident, shrill, militant, insulting and intolerant. But what do these criticisms really mean?

We can dismiss "strident" and "shrill"; the perceived tone of anyone's remarks is purely subjective. To me, the idea of calling someone such as Richard Dawkins "strident" or "shrill" is completely incomprehensible; having read his work and heard him speak in person, I find him soft-spoken, reasonable, moderate and calm. But if you hear him as shrill, well, that's your business.

"Militant" is a fair cop, if we interpret "militant" in the sense of "showing a fighting disposition: 'highly competitive sales representative'; 'militant in fighting for better wages for workers'; 'his self-assertive and ubiquitous energy.'" There really is a competition — intellectual, ideological, moral, social and political — between atheism and theism, and we "New Atheists" are definitely ready, willing and able to stand up for ourselves with "self-assertive and ubiquitous energy."

As for insulting, well, there's no help for that. As Alonzo Fyfe correctly notes, moral claims are insults.
There is no neutral way to accuse somebody of a moral crime. If you say that he performed a moral crime then you are saying he has a bad person – he has a character flaw – he deserves to be ridiculed, condemned, laughed at, or even intentionally harmed.

There is no nice way to say that somebody is immoral.

The statement, "What you did was wrong but you are still a really great guy – a saint, in fact, who nobody can say anything against," is a flat-out contradiction. If a person is guilty is doing something wrong, this necessarily implies that statements as to his virtue need at least some qualification.
It really doesn't matter if you take a calm, reasoned tone or use crude and emotional language: an insult is an insult. Alonzo Fyfe prefers the "prosecutorial" approach. I prefer crude and emotional language; I'd rather be hung for a sheep as a lamb. Neither of us are nice; neither of us intend to be nice.

The moral dimension to the theism/atheism conflict is undeniable. I'm often asked why I bother. I bother because a lot of activities shock my conscience and cause me emotional distress. It's irrelevant whether these activities "ought to" shock my conscience: I am who I am, and I had no control over the causal factors — genetic, evolutionary, environmental, developmental and social — that made me into the particular person I happen to be, with "dimensions, senses, affections, passions."

But just as I'm not a passionless, will-less, emotionless computer, neither am I an unreasoning animal. I can and do think about how and why things happen that shock my conscience. I see as an atheist much evil coming from religion, from uncritically projecting one's prejudices, fears and hatreds on a deity and calling them absolute, unassailable moral truths. What little good comes from religion — community, emotional support, ritual — can be obtained without the bullshit superstition. Likewise, as a communist, I see much evil coming from capitalism, and what good comes of it can be achieved without the exploitation and oppression.

As to intolerance... well... in one sense I am indeed intolerant: I do not approve of or remain silent about that which shocks my conscience. In another sense, "intolerance" is a vague pejorative that can and has meant simple criticism or just disagreement. (The religious didn't originate this construction; pejoratively labeling criticism or disagreement "intolerance" seems to have started with a faction of the more-or-less secular academic humanities.)

Of course, just as my tolerance has its limits, so does my intolerance. I do not — nor do the vast majority of atheists — shoot people who shock my conscience, nor do I urge others to do so. I don't bomb buildings, fly airplanes into buildings, threaten or harass people I disagree with. I support everyone's right to speak as they please, and I don't demand that anyone I disagree with — Christian, Muslim, capitalist, Randian or Libertarian — shut up or be censored. (Naturally I affirm my own right to speak as I please to criticize or condemn others.) I oppose making religion illegal and I oppose legalizing religious discrimination. I believe all coercion must be privileged through democratic, social processes.

The very worst I've ever done in my life is call people fucktards.

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