Thursday, February 02, 2012

The first step

In his response to my post targeting and bullying, Grizwald Grim has new arguments against the New Atheists. According to Grim, the stupid behavior of religious people is just a consequence of there being a lot of religious people, and Grim claims that "promoting and defending mockery based on group membership is the first step [emphasis omitted]" towards death threats and violence against a group. Grim also believes that mockery implies that the group is inferior and less human. Finally Grim thinks that mockery is ineffective for the goal (which he seems to share) of reducing or eliminating the social privilege of religion. Given the context (I'd want to see more supporting detail in a college paper), Grim makes a decent argument, but he's mistaken on all counts.

The idea that the stupid behavior of religious people is an artifact of the size of the group seems insupportable in the face of the evidence. We have ample evidence showing a direct causal mechanism between religious belief and stupid behavior. Both The God Delusion and god is not great provide considerable documentation. Almost all opponents of GLBTetc. marriage and queer rights in general are religious, they make directly religious arguments for their positions, and explicitly state that not allowing them to discriminate is specifically religious discrimination. Almost all opponents of abortion and women's rights are religious with specifically religious justifications. (It's notable that while sexism and racism are rife in the atheist community, the response is usually to deny that it exists rather than attempt to justify it.) More importantly, we know independently that a lot of religious beliefs actually held by religious people are flat-out delusional. to a person who strongly values the truth, delusional beliefs can have nothing but deleterious effects. That religious stupidity is an artifact is a legitimate null hypothesis, but just as it's delusional to reject the null hypothesis without evidence, it's delusional to accept the null hypothesis in the face of persuasive evidence to the contrary.

The "first step" argument is nothing more than the slippery slope fallacy. To make a valid slippery slope argument, you must show that there is no good objective way to distinguish between deprecated and acceptable actions. But New Atheists make three important objective distinctions. First, we do not criticize people for ineluctable traits: we criticize people for holding beliefs, and beliefs are not ineluctable. Second, there's an obvious and very sharp line between mockery and criticism on the one hand and violence on the other: violence, threats of violence, and violent imagery.

The third distinction is a little more subtle. Grim is somewhat vague when he talks about "targeting". There are (at least) two legitimate interpretations of this term. In one sense, it just means choosing to criticize this person rather than that person just because the critic prefers to criticize one group rather than another. There's nothing wrong with this sort of "targeting": black people tend to target racism; women tend to target sexism; gay people tend to target homophobia. No one can criticize everything, so we generally tend to pick and choose based on our specific interests.

Second, it might mean mocking someone or drawing a conclusion about someone just because he adopts a label: "You call yourself a Christian, therefore you are stupid." Targeting in sense is not necessarily bad: I doubt anyone would object to mocking someone who calls himself a neo-Nazi, or drawing the conclusion that he's not at all fond of blacks or Jews, just because he adopts that label. However, given the broad application of most religious labels, this kind of behavior is inappropriate. But the New Atheists don't actually do that. There's a difference between making a negative generalization (supported by evidence and with a discernible mechanism) about a group and actually mocking people just because they belong to that group.

Indeed, it is precisely because it seems extremely difficult for a member of a group to separate generalizations about that group and personal mockery that Grim himself is on a legitimate slippery slope. It's easy, I think, for a Muslim to hear the criticism that Islam (as a religion) is generally sexist as the accusation that he personally is a sexist. It's easy to see mockery of some egregiously sexist action of an Islamic authority (impeccably supported by quotations from the Koran and Hadith) as mockery of the individual just because he self-identifies as a Muslim. "What!?" he exclaims, "I'm not a sexist!" Fine. If the shoe doesn't fit, don't wear it. Just because I might believe, for example, that 80% of Muslims are sexist doesn't mean that I believe that 100% of them are in that 80%. (I might note that if they are not sexist, it's odd that they self-identify with a religion that seems to have sexism as such an integral part of the foundational documents, and where a majority of the adherents agree with that sexism, but that's a discussion for another day.)

I do the same thing: I take offense all the time when atheism is criticized. The difference, of course, is that I inquire as to whether the criticism is true. If it is, I get over myself, accept the criticism, and work to correct it. The question is not whether the criticism is pejorative, the question is whether it's true. And when I do express offense, it's not because the generalization is pejorative, but because it's untrue.

If Grim wants to argue the falsity of New Atheist generalizations about religion, let him make that argument. It's tough: you have to do actual research, but it's not impossible. But if Grim wants to argue that we simply should not give offense — defined only by the reaction of the listener — regardless of the truth, then he has certainly offended me, and he should — by his own lights — just STFU and GBTW. Pull down those mocking, offensive, disrespectful posts, Grim, which have deeply offended me and hurt my precious little snowflake feelings! Stop throwing stones at the New Atheist castle! If you don't, I'll come over and rearrange your furniture!


  1. Just to add that claiming discrimination, racism, hate speech, dehumanization etc are deliberate strategies deployed by some religious groups to stifle criticism. In particular I’ve noticed Islamic apologists playing and succeeding with this card on Irish political boards. To some criticising Islam is now synonymous with racism.

  2. " But New Atheists make three important objective distinctions."
    Sure they do. However, unless you start issuing membership cards, there will come a time (if it's not here already) where ignorant people self-identify as New Atheists and do not make important objective distinctions. Therein lies the danger of the mockery.

    Particularly as an atheistic source of pride is atheism 'not being a religion,' as the movement grows and expands there won't be 'priests' and 'bishops' to speak to appropriate behavior for those ascribing to New Atheism. Sure, it's hypothesis/prediction based on observation of human behavior and groups - but I see no safeguards in place to prevent it.

  3. Therein lies the danger of the mockery.

    So what? Everything's dangerous.

    I see no safeguards in place to prevent it.

    Um... laws? police? prisons?

    You don't get any guarantees in this world. If you're a giant scaredey cat, then lock your doors and windows, have your groceries delivered, and pray a meteor doesn't fall on your house. Or you can grow a pair, and pay your money and take your chances. Stop being a giant baby and join the real world.

  4. Wow Larry, how uncharacteristic of the way you tend to present yourself and New Atheism. Post-worthy in fact. As I'm sure it will warrant quite the retort, I'll give you a heads up on the theme:
    New Atheism shows its True Colors, and it didn't take much criticism to do it.

  5. Whatever, Grim. You're just as big an asshole as I am; the difference is that you're just an idiot. Don't bother to send me the link: I've already plumbed the depths of your intelligence, and it didn't take a lot of string. There's no point in mucking about in the dregs at the bottom.


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