Permission to be Human?

Let’s imagine you had a friend who was really into learning things and making the world a better place. Let’s suppose that friend happened upon some people who seemed to have some really important things figured out. So, in the interest of gaining knowledge and doing good things, your friend decided to hang out with those people for a while. Later, they came to you with some misgivings.

“I like what these people are saying, but there’s this one person who everybody looks to as the leader, and frankly, he’s mean. Like, he won’t just tell people he disagrees with them and why, he will also tell them they are shit, worthless, terrible human beings and they need to go die. Sometimes he says this to people who are solidly against him, but he will also say it to people who are basically on his side but disagree with him on a few issues. He will even say it to people who are making accidental newbie mistakes.”

Your reaction to that would probably be, “wow, that’s not okay.” If your friend told you they decided to bail on the group based simply on that, you would probably support that completely. You care about your friend. You don’t want them to be treated badly. Those don’t sound like good people to be around.

But let’s suppose your friend doesn’t want to do this. Suppose your friend still really thinks there is awesome stuff in this group, and would rather move away from that  particular section of it, hopefully into a place that is kinder and less toxic. If the ideas are good, that is true regardless of the behavior of the people preaching them, right? Isn’t it better to try to leave aside the bad and accept the good?

It’s a tall and difficult order, but a good thing to do if you can pull it off, so you wish your friend luck. Later on, you check in about how this project is going.

“Um, so-so,” they say. “On the one hand, I’m still learning a lot of good stuff. Also, I’ve found a lot of people who think the way I do, who think that guy from before was unreasonable and petty and mean, and they don’t listen to him either.”

You sense a but, so you supply it. “But….?”

“But he’s really, really far from the only one out there. I mean, people who talk like him are everywhere. I always have to be really careful and watch what I’m saying, because I never know when somebody is going to pounce on something I’ve said, maybe something that I had no idea was wrong, and they make me feel like total shit. And sometimes I think I didn’t deserve it in the first place, like I’m being misunderstood or maybe what they are saying isn’t quite right. But usually when this happens I can’t talk to them and get some clarity, because any questions are seen as confirmation that I’m just a bad person to begin with. Sometimes I say, ‘okay, thanks for educating me’ even if I don’t quite get it, because I want to get out of the conversation.”

“That really sucks.”

“Yeah. But I still feel like this group has good stuff to offer, both to me and the world in general. And I’m realizing some of this is just an inevitable part of how the world works. There are trolls in every group.”

“So you still want to consider yourself part of the group?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Okay then. Based on the things your friend has said, this group does have some good stuff to offer, and you’ve met some of the nicer members. They really are fantastic people. But you still worry a bit about your friend.

Then the day comes that your friend comes to you in tears. “I posted something online. I just saw some people talking about the live action Mulan movie, and how important it was that the cast be Asian, not whitewashed like The Last Airbender. I agreed with that and didn’t really have anything to add. But then some people started talking about how the actors absolutely must be Chinese, how some people being considered are Korean or Filipino or Japanese and that’s just the worst bullshit ever. I thought, ‘it would be pretty cool if the cast was Chinese, but I think it’s also possible that the actors who give the best auditions happen to be of a different Asian ethnicity, and if that happens it won’t be the end of the world. It will still be a step forward for diversity and a great opportunity for under recognized Asian actors.’ So I said as much. I was so afraid of how people would respond, it took me thirty minutes to write even though it was just a few lines, and I’m still shaking.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing yet. Maybe nobody will notice it. But it could get spread far, and I’m scared I’ll get slammed, even though I’m pretty sure I’m right. And you know what drives me crazy? Let’s say I’m totally wrong. It’s possible. I’m not infallible. But even if I am wrong, I am wrong about an incredibly minor issue, yet I fully expect someone to rip me to shreds.”

You already pretty much know what’s coming next, because you’ve heard these rants before, but your friend is still really worked up, so you let them go on.

“And you know what else? I’m mad that I’m hoping nobody notices. Because I want to be somebody who expresses my opinion and gets to participate in the discussions, but I’ve been really quiet for so long. I’ve been quiet because I’m afraid if I make a single mistake, somebody is going to pounce on me and tell everyone else to ignore me because I’m total worthless shit. I want to be able to say what’s on my mind. I want to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. When I make them and somebody points it out, I want to feel free to thank them but maybe not agree that it’s a mistake right away. I want to mull it over for a while, explore a few different angles, and then when I finally say ‘I was wrong’ be saying it because I really believe I was wrong, not because I was scared to say otherwise. I’m never going to be perfect, and I’d like that to be okay.”

When they finally wind down, you say, “write about it. Write all that down, and share it.”

“But they’re just going to say I’m trying to shut them down, that I’m using their anger as an excuse to silence them. Which is a real problem, and I fully support anyone’s right to feel angry, I’m just sick of looking over my shoulders for fear that opening my mouth will get me attacked. I don’t know how to explain the difference between those two things.”

“If its wrong for you to silence them for their anger, is it right for their anger to silence others? If you have a duty to respectfully listen to their beliefs, do they not have a duty to respectfully listen to others?”

Here’s probably a good time to de-mysticize the metaphor. I am the friend. I am also mostly the person listening to the friend. I’ve been having these conversations inside my head for years. In the last part, though, where the person listening is actually my boyfriend (I’m sorry, I swear I won’t become one of those bloggers who mentions their significant other in every single post, he’s just the source of that last quote and I had to credit him). The group is the nebulous entity known as social justice activists; those fabulous people who really do battle every day to improve the lives of everyone, to educate people about important and under-recognized issues, and who often demonstrate the best of human kindness in their day to day lives. And also all those trolls, many of whom have extremely large followings and have somehow turned a message as positive and edifying as “go educate yourself” into an ugly putdown. Many of them have gone through phases of being one or the other. They are human beings, after all.

I feel like posts like these usually end with a call to action and a detailed battle plan that will lead us all to Utopia. I’m not going to do that, because I don’t have a solution. I still think some of the problem is just human nature. Still, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from hanging out in social justice-y circles, its that if you assume a problem is just engrained in human nature, you will never fix it, but if you start a conversation you might find solutions that surpass your most optimistic expectations. I’m not the only person out there talking about this issue. I talked to another friend before posting this, and they later sent this to me. So I’m skeptical about this problem disappearing, but optimistic about it getting better.

In any case, solving the problem is not sole point of this post. The point of this post is quite selfish. The point is that I was scared to post the Mulan bit on Tumblr, and I’m scared to post this, and I don’t want to be someone who lets my own fear of others’ anger silence me.

The Colors of Words

My boyfriend and I just had a two hour debate over something we agreed about completely. “Sure, you need to be careful about what judgments you make, and how you treat people based on those judgments,” he would say, “but its still fair and inevitable to make some judgments, especially based on things people really have choices about, like the slogans on their T-shirts.”

“Sure, we all come to conclusions about each other, and when those are based on real choices, not things people have no control over, that is somewhat justifiable,” I would respond, “but you still need to be careful when making judgments, especially when those judgments affect how you treat someone.”

On and on, in a circle of exhausting agreements that still felt like a dispute.

When we both finally tired of playing Ring Around the Rosie, we eventually found the source of the argument. It was in the word “judge.” Like so many words, it carries the load of a few different meanings, and we were thinking of distinct ones as we spoke. We were committing a classic sin of debate; failing to properly define our terms.

According to the conventional narrative of how debates play out, that was supposed to resolve the problem. We were supposed to mutually redefine our terms and laugh about the error. Oddly enough, though, that didn’t happen. Even knowing what the problem was, we both struggled to use the word “judge” in the sense that the other meant it. We were both using the word in a somewhat limited sense, and neither of us could easily expand our definition.

Grant’s father was a judge. He listened to cases, had the opportunity to see both sides of an argument, deliberated on all sides, and came back with a consequence that was reasonable and appropriate. Over and over, throughout his life, Grant heard of judgement being delivered in that manner. When people tell him not to judge, it feels like telling him not to think, not to be fair, not to care about justice, not to come to any conclusions about anything. It makes him feel vilified when he has to make a decision and doesn’t have all the facts at hand, or all the time in the world to investigate them.

To me, though, judgment means Judgment Day. It means how dare you think for yourself, be raised in a religion that isn’t ours, make a mistake, wear too much lipstick. It is when Moses strikes a rock to get water from it, instead of only speaking to it, and God says he will die in the desert without ever entering the Promised Land. (Numbers 20:2-12) It means seeing someone with spiky blue hair and concluding they worship the devil, whether they know it or not. Judgment lets one mistake, one action, one facet of your complex being define you, and it removes any qualms you have over punishing someone, harshly, for that small thing.

For both of us, our associations with the word judge were intimate, personal and deep, and in order to end the argument we had to get away from it entirely and find a new word, “assess.” Its all right to make qualified, well evidenced assessments about a person, provided you are also fair in how you treat them and willing to revise those assessments as you get to know them better.

I think all of us have words like that, where the associations we have, based on the context in which we learned them, color their meanings. The dictionary can solve some definitional problems, but not all of them. Sometimes its on us to recognize our linguistic biases, acknowledge the rights of others to have their own, and meet each other halfway.


I’m going to take a moment here and drift off into my ideal world, the “if things were perfect” world I like to build in my head. In that world, an attractive young woman, a featured speaker at a large conference, gets on an elevator at 4 am to head to her hotel room. A man gets on with her, and on the way up he says, “Hey, I really enjoyed your talk and I’d love to spend some time with you — would you be interested in coming back to my room?” And she, being exhausted, would say “No thanks,” and if she finds him at all attractive might add, “I’m really tired, but maybe we could meet up tomorrow?” And he, whether receiving the flat “no” or the “no maybe later,” accepts it graciously and they each go to their respective rooms. And nobody feels uncomfortable or unhappy about the encounter, because hey, he asked, she said no, it happens, nobody’s harmed or troubled.

But we don’t live in the ideal world; we live in a world where such an encounter would be rare at best, and impossible for many people. Instead we live in a world where these things are true:

– Most women have been the recipients of unwelcome and intrusive sexual overtures, not once but many times; many women have been the victims of hostile or violent sexually-charged behavior, ranging from groping or stalking to rape; nearly all women have been trained to be alert to signs that a strange man might be a sexual predator.

– Because of the above, being trapped and isolated with a strange man who is displaying sexual interest, however mildly, makes most women slightly nervous or uncomfortable.

– Most women have been socialized with a certain taboo around saying “no,” been trained to say it indirectly at most, and to go along with the wishes of their companions (whether male or female.) This training takes place through intense, often cruel social punishment in the formative years, learning that if you are direct and assertive about your wants and boundaries you will be rejected, shunned, and insulted. Because of this, even women who reject the taboo as silly and understand the value of clear, direct communication and boundary-setting often feel uncomfortable or anxious when put in a situation where they have to say no.

– Some men, consciously or unconsciously, take advantage of this reluctance and discomfort to push women into sexual interactions they’d prefer to avoid.

– Women and men alike are trained that women are the “gatekeepers” of sexuality; that men ask and women grant or withhold. This puts both sexes in an unpleasant situation. Men face repeated rejection, but they have no choice but to keep asking women they find attractive, because if she is interested nothing will happen if he doesn’t act. Meanwhile women feel bombarded with sexual attention, and the above-mentioned taboo against saying “no” makes each request-and-rejection stressful, even if the man was perfectly polite about it.

All of the above are truths about the culture that we currently live in, which means that if you are a reasonably considerate man who wants to avoid causing discomfort to women, you will not hit on a lone woman in an elevator at 4 am. You will especially not do so after she’s given a talk about how she dislikes sexual attention from strange men (something I left out of my ideal-world scenario, because in my ideal world such a talk would have been unnecessary and the woman in question would have talked about Bigfoot instead.) And if you are a woman who assumes good faith in most of the men you interact with, you will point out in a friendly way how uncomfortable such a situation makes you.

(Unfortunately another truth about the world we live in is that there are deep, deep misunderstandings and resentments between men and women, and that the internet gives a voice to a lot of crazy people, and so what we have is a tempest that has spilled out of the teapot it was brewed in and is raging across the atheist blogosphere. My advice to you, if the term “Elevatorgate” means nothing to you, is not to google it, and if you do google it by no means read the comments on relevant posts. They will not, on the whole, give you a sanguine view of humanity.)

Now I do think that we ought to be working to build a bridge from the currently-real world to the ideal one, and so I don’t think the answer here is “Men should walk on eggshells around women because they don’t realize what kinds of situations might make them feel uncomfortable or threatened.” It’s more… well, take a look at all my “real-world-truths” bullet points, and think about what you could do to make them less true.

Men, respect women’s boundaries, and don’t harass them or push yourself on them, and don’t let your friends get away with doing so either. Women, practice saying no and being comfortable with the idea that a “Would you like to…?” “No thanks,” “Okay” interaction is just fine and does not reflect badly on the asker or the denier.

Men, listen to what women tell you about how different interactions make them feel, and if it seems weird or nonsensical at first, listen a little harder. (If it seems weird or nonsensical several layers down, or if the majority of women you ask agree that it’s batshit insane, feel free to disregard it as that one person’s idiosyncrasy.) Women, remember that most men, even the ones who display sexual interest in you, are not predators or stalkers or rapists — most of them are looking for a mutually enjoyable experience, and have battled through a lot of rejection to get to you, so think kindly of them even as you say no.

Educators of all genders, stop framing rape as something it’s the woman’s responsibility to prevent. Stop perpetuating the myth of the female gatekeeper — teach young men and women alike that it’s normal to want sex sometimes and normal to not want sex sometimes. Stop punishing little girls more harshly for assertive or “rude” behavior.

Men and women and everybody: choose understanding over resentment, thoughtfulness over defensiveness, and good-faith dialogue over vitriolic spite.

Two kinds of respect

The word “respect” gets tossed around a lot in discussions of how people with differing belief systems should interact. One of the problems that arises, especially in the Tone Wars, is that the different factions have very different ideas of what the word means.

There are two very different kinds of respect. One is contained in the idea of a respectful distance… you have your space, I have mine, and we refrain from infringing on each other’s until we’ve exchanged signals that such infringement is welcome. The second is more like respect for a worthy adversary… we acknowledge the other person’s strength and competence, and test our capabilities against theirs, hoping that one or both of us will become stronger from the exchange.

Accomodationists, and the liberal Western world in general, favor the former kind of respect. To respect someone else, say they, is to give them plenty of space, to avoid doing anything that might unsettle their equilibrium. Along with this is the idea of not challenging someone else’s beliefs or lifestyle choices; when they express a value that differs from yours, at most you lightly state that your views are quite different, which is a cue to both of you to avoid the subject from now on. To respond with a challenge or disagreement is seen as an act of aggression, an infringement on someone else’s space, crossing a boundary of personal engagement that they didn’t want to see crossed.

Gnu atheists, on the other hand, favor the latter kind of respect. To respect someone else in their eyes means to question them when you think their ideas are questionable, to give them your best shot and invite them to give you theirs. It means presenting your ideas openly and expecting the other person to be robust enough to deal with them. Holding back your true opinions and values is seen as disrespect, as treating the other person like they’re too weak to defend their beliefs.

When the two different notions of respect meet, we end up with something like the Earth-Minbari war, where one side displays their weapons openly as a mark of respect, and the other reads this as a hostile action and fires on them. We all know what happens after that. (For the insufficiently geeky, here’s a hint: the scenario started the Earth-Minbari war.)

As I said, liberal Western culture mostly seems to favor the “respectful distance” idea, which is why so many people, even atheists, attack the Gnus for being disrespectful. I do think the “respectful distance” idea is important, especially as our society becomes increasingly diverse. In our daily lives, we encounter people with so many differing lifestyles and opinions that we would never have a moment’s peace if we were all trying to challenge each other whenever there was a conflict. But it should be noted that that kind of respect by definition includes the idea of distance. If we refuse to engage other people when our ideas conflict, then our potential for intimacy with them is limited by how much or how little we have in common. Openness to conflict, on the other hand, allows us to be intimately connected even with people whose ideas on important subjects differ dramatically. A world where all points of disagreement were treated with kid gloves and respectful silence would be a world devoid of true intimacy.

The other thing that can’t happen without challenge and conflict is growth and change. I’m not saying all growth requires conflict: far from it. Indeed, very few people change their ideology as a direct result of someone else’s arguments. But as we are exposed to other people’s ideas and values, as we see our own through their eyes, we reassess and sometimes adjust our own. It’s a continual process, a very healthy process, and it can’t happen without that exposure. And sometimes we have a particularly entrenched idea, and need a particularly hard jostle to shake us into re-evaluating it.

I think it’s good for the health of society that most people operate under the “respectful distance” model most of the time. But it is essential for the health of society that conflict be allowed and sometimes encouraged, and that different voices be heard, even ones that make the hearers uncomfortable. We all need a jostle from time to time, and even the jostles that are useless for refining our ideas help us be battle-ready for future conflicts.

Common pitfalls in discussions between atheists and believers

The discussion between atheists and believers is rife with personal attacks, defensiveness, accusations of rudeness, actual rudeness, and all manner of other debate-pollutants. Sometimes this is because one party or another is being boorish or disingenuous, but often two well-meaning people attempting to argue in good faith get entangled in the same mess. Both atheists and believers would do well to be conscious of a few exacerbating factors that can lead people to misinterpret the other’s intent.

1) Believers feel very personally attached to their beliefs, and therefore have a hard time seeing the difference between attacking their beliefs and attacking them.

If you say to an atheist, “I think it’s silly not to believe in God,” they’ll usually respond with something like, “I don’t see why… what’s your basis for saying that?” If you say to a believer, “I think it’s silly to believe in God,” the typical response is, “How dare you call me silly?” An atheist’s beliefs about the nature of reality are external to their core sense of identity. A believer’s beliefs about the nature of reality are usually part of their sense of identity, and challenging them feels acutely personal, like attacking someone’s ethnicity.

In addition, many believers believe in one or more personal, self-aware deities. They often believe they have a personal relationship with this deity, and/or that this deity has preferences about how, when, and by whom they are referred to. Hearing someone question their deity’s existence, or do something that for the believer is blasphemy, provokes a protective response, as if the atheist is speaking ill of a family member.

Believers need to remember that atheists don’t think their deity exists, and they feel no more need to respect said deity’s feelings than they do to respect the feelings of Harvey the 6-foot bunny. Also that, if you’re getting into a discussion about religion, it is going to be a discussion about ideas, with someone who rejects many of yours. Thicken your skin, and don’t take criticism of your beliefs personally. If hearing someone say, “I don’t believe your god is real,” is going to offend you, you probably shouldn’t be discussing religion.

Atheists need to remember that believers feel a personal, emotional connection to their deity and their faith, and that it is in the interests of a productive discussion to stay away from emotionally-laden words. For example, instead of “silly,” try “unfounded.” Strong, emotionally-laden language is good for galvanizing a crowd, but in interpersonal conversation with someone who is almost certainly going to be more sensitive than you, it’s only going to derail the discussion.

2) In a typical conversation between a believer and an atheist, the believer has had at most two or three similar conversations before, while the atheist has had dozens or hundreds. This is mostly just because there are so many more believers than atheists. Believers of the majority religion– in America, Christians — tend to live their life surrounded by people who share their religion, and only occasionally encounter atheists or people of other religions. Atheists, however, usually live their life surrounded by believers, and have no shortage of opportunities to talk about beliefs. So a believer may have an argument point that seems quite powerful to them, only to find that the atheist greets it with weariness and impatience.

Atheists are also generally much more informed about religion than believers are about atheism. Most vocal atheists have read a number of religious texts, as well as works of theology and apologetics. Very few believers have read the works of prominent atheists.

Atheists need to remember that the believer they’re talking to hasn’t had the same conversation fifty times before, and muster some of the same patience any teacher or customer-service worker has to employ in telling different people the same things over and over. If you’re going to engage in these conversations, you need to give each person the courtesy of a fresh answer, even if it sounds stale to you.

Believers need to educate themselves about atheism and atheist arguments. Read some Dawkins, Harris, or Dennett. (I don’t recommend Hitchens for a believer new to atheist writings; his polemic style is intended to provoke.) Even if the atheists you talk with don’t agree with those writers, you’ll have a frame of reference to start with, and you’ll be less likely to put forward an argument that they’ve heard and responded to fifty times already.

3) Most of the words we use when we talk about religion — “God,” “faith,” “Christian,” and “religion” itself, to name a few — are exceedingly roomy concepts. It’s all too easy and all too common to be having a debate about the existence of God, or the relative merits and demerits of religion, where the precise meaning of “God” or “religion” slides all over the map according to the convenience of the debators. Then everybody gets all huffy at each other.

The cure is simple: define your terms. If you’re discussing the existence of a god, decide at the outset whether you’re talking about Jehovah, Krishna, Allah, a self-aware pan-universal spirit, a projection of human craving for meaning and justice*, or what. If you’re talking about whether Christianity is harmful or helpful overall, decide at the outset whether “a Christian” is anybody who claims alliance with any sect of Christianity, or someone whose life reflects your own personal values and interpretations of what Christianity means (hint to believers: you’ll never get the atheist to agree to the latter, for very good reasons, but it’s good to go ahead and make that explicit.)

*I’m not trying to be flip here: near as I can tell, this is what Karen Armstrong means when she talks about God, and while I find it irritating, it is a working definition, so let’s put it on the list.

These are the big pitfalls I’ve seen in operation. Anyone have any more to add? (Please refrain from sniping at the other side in your comments: I really am trying to promote good-faith discussion. Clever quips and snide mockery have their place, but this is not that place.)

Straw men, Scotsmen, and NALTs

Arguing on the internet is, at times, like being part of the biggest family reunion in the world. Inevitably, someone you’re related to is going to behave in a horribly embarrassing way, and just as inevitably, someone from another branch of the family is going to lump you in with them. The knee-jerk response to this is to do everything in your power to distance yourself from them.

In the world of internet debate, this comes in the form of three common objections: accusing your opponent of committing the strawman fallacy; committing, yourself, the No True Scotsman fallacy; or plaintively crying “We’re not all like that!” I’m not terribly interested in breaking down the difference between the three, especially since they can often be used interchangeably. I’m more interested in a collective call to sanity. We’ve all got our drunk uncles, and we will never succeed in silencing members of our group whose ideas or manners are embarrassing to us. I’d much rather we concentrate on voicing our own attitudes and viewpoints (which of course are entirely reasonable, entirely civil, and could never be seen as an embarrassment by another member of our family!)

If you’re interested in “winning” a debate in the eyes of some easily-dazzled onlookers, then citing the ugliest and stupidest examples of your opposition is a smart way to go. If you’re interested in increasing collective wisdom and insight, it’s a waste of everybody’s time. I don’t need you to tell me that some atheists are assholes. Nobody else does either. The only people that need to hear about the extreme idiocy or assholery on a given side of a debate are the people on the same side who carry a starry-eyed naïveté about how their own ideas infallibly produce virtue and wisdom. Those folks need a harsh awakening, which any visit to an appropriately-themed message board can provide. For the rest of us? Let’s grow up and move on, hmm?

But growing up and moving on means not only refusing to attack the worst versions of my opponent’s ideology, but refusing to engage with people who attack the worst version of my own. If someone writes a long blog post which amounts to saying, “Gee, some atheists sure are smug assholes aren’t they?” I think my best response is to ignore it. Because they’re right: some atheists sure are smug assholes. I’m not, so I’m not going to respond as if they’re talking about me. I will only respond if their attack hits nearer to home: for example if they say, “Gee, it sure is smug and assholeish to believe that your understanding of the universe is better than someone else’s.” No, it’s not; I do believe that my understanding of the universe is better than some people’s, I don’t think that makes me a smug asshole, and I will readily argue that point. And if my opponent, in the course of an argument, points to some smug asshole on a message board who happens to agree with me, I will say, “Yeah, but we’re not talking about them. Tell me what smugness or assholery I have been guilty of, or stop wasting both our time.”

Anyone from a big family knows, or has had ample opportunity to learn: there’s really nothing you can do about your drunk uncle. Can’t silence them, can’t control them, can’t stop other people from unfairly comparing you to them. The best you can do is resolutely maintain your own commitment to reason and civility. Anybody worth your time will appreciate it.

“Just as bad”… truth, arrogance, and atheism

“The new atheists are just as bad as religious fundamentalists.” We’ve all heard it… it’s becoming a tiresome commonplace. To those of us within the atheist community, it’s a baffling statement. Just as bad, really? When have atheists ever lobbied against other people’s rights to marry who they chose? When have atheists ever used violence and terrorism against people who believed differently? (Okay, some arms of secular communism did… but people who say we’re “just as bad” are usually talking about Dawkins, not Stalin.) When have atheists ever suggested that other people don’t have the right to mock and criticize their beliefs, and even threatened retribution against those who “blaspheme”? We just don’t do shit like that. So it’s very odd to hear that we’re “just as bad” as religious fundamentalists.

A commenter on Ophelia Benson’s blog made it clear to me. These accusations come from people who think religion’s chief offense is believing that it is right and all others are wrong. They have bought into the liberal, postmodern idea that it is rude and offensive and foolish to say, “My beliefs are true and yours are false.” That is their main objection to religion, and they assume that that’s everybody’s main objection to religion, and so they’re baffled and offended when an atheist says to a believer, “My beliefs are true and yours are false.”

For any who are so confused, let me set the record straight. “New atheists,” like religious fundamentalists (and evangelicals, and many other religious people) believe that there is a truth about the ultimate nature of the universe. We believe that sentences like “There is a god” are meaningful and may be either true or false: that is, may correspond more or less closely with reality. We also believe that the truth or falsehood of this sentence matters. We believe that people who conduct their lives according to an accurate belief about the ultimate nature of the universe (which includes the existence or non-existence of a god) are better off than people who live by a false belief. On all these principles, we are indeed like religious fundamentalists, evangelicals, et al.

Both atheists and theists may be humble enough to recognize that they could be wrong in their beliefs. They may be humble enough to recognize that their conception of God or the universe is probably incomplete, lacking, errant in some respects. But they will still claim that their beliefs are closer to the truth, and how could they not? The idea of a belief that one does not actually believe is nonsensical. And beliefs about the ultimate nature of the universe do carry some implications about the best kind of life. If one accepts that some beliefs are truer than others, the only sensible course is to try to find your way to the truest beliefs, and to help others find them as well.

So yeah, if your big problem with religious people is that they have the gall to think they’re right and others are wrong, then the new atheists are “just as bad.” That is not, and has never been, my criticism of religion, and I think the other Gnus are with me on that. Hope that clears it up.

Priestly authority and atheist quarrels

I’ve been reading archives from the last year in various atheist blogs (it’s a lazy long weekend for me, hurrah!) and I’ve been mildly entertained by tracking some controversies and in-fighting. What can I say? I’m a sucker for human drama. And I’m fascinated by the way intelligent, rational people can slip, or err, or occasionally fall to bits, if you press the wrong buttons. The atheist community, by and large, tolerates internal disagreement without people losing their heads, but occasionally things do get personal.

And then at some point in my reading I was struck by my own reactions. These are writers I respect, intellectual leaders in a community I identify with. When I was a Christian, quarrels like these disturbed me deeply. To see an argument between two respected Christians devolve into personal rancor was destabilizing to me; I felt I had to side with one or the other of them, or denounce them both, and the anxiety and sense of faint betrayal went right to the pit of my stomach. Whereas, seeing a similar kind of argument between atheists, I feel detached amusement, I’m able to see merit on both sides (usually), and I go on my way with my own ideas undisturbed.

The reason for the difference is plain. Christian leaders purport to have not only special training, but a divine blessing. They derive their intellectual and moral authority from a claim that God has placed them in their position of leadership, and that God is working through them, speaking through them, revealing Godself through them. I trusted their wisdom, in many cases, above my own instincts about right and wrong. I was led and guided by them, because although they would never claim to be more than mere humans, the structure of our beliefs proclaimed that they were exactly that: humans, but humans with a special voice, a special calling. They said they heard God speak. I never did, so of course I followed them. And when they fought among themselves, when they let respectable debate sink into the mire of personal attacks, I felt horribly confused and betrayed. Shouldn’t they be above this? If the spirit of God is with them, why is it not curbing these unreasonable personal impulses? And if the spirit of God is not with them, why have I been honoring their wisdom above my own?

There are times in human life where it is good for one person to submit to the authority and teaching of another. Parents know things about life that children do not; teachers know things about their discipline that their students to not. But both childhood and studenthood are temporary conditions; the whole purpose of the training is to raise the student up to the level of the teacher, to raise the child up to the level of the parent. Then the authority ends. Priesthood is a lifelong, intrinsic moral authority over laypeople (whether because the priest is inherently morally superior, or whether because they’re specially called and appointed by God makes no difference). Christian believers are not supposed to get to a point where they’re independent of priestly authority. To aspire to this would be arrogant. They are required to submit themselves, through the whole of their lives, to the wisdom of the godly men (or, more rarely, women) who have been placed there to guide and instruct them. It’s horrible. And it makes it much more horrible when it becomes patently clear that the priests are every bit as weak and foolish as the flock.

Rights vs. Oughts: a fundamental concept for civilized conversation

I’m going to try to make this short and sweet, so I can point back to it whenever I need to. There’s something we all need to get clear, in our discussion of ideas and ethics and social mores and what have you. It is this: There is a distinction between granting a right, and bestowing approval.

Do we have that? This is important. I can defend and advocate someone’s right to do something, without at all believing that it’s what they should do. I can defend and advocate someone’s right to do something while at the same time trying to persuade them to do otherwise.

To take two recent, topical examples: that dude in Florida had every right to burn his Koran. Those Muslims in New York have every right to build their community center near Ground Zero. I don’t approve of either action. I could write long posts arguing reasons for both of those parties not to go through with their plans. And if I did this, someone would inevitably respond with, “Yeah, but they have a perfect right to do so, so why are you arguing?”

I’m arguing because I, as a thinking person, have every right to criticize and disapprove of other people’s legitimate choices. Full stop.

To take a more everyday example: I have the right to eat meat. If an animal-rights-activist-vegetarian friend disapproves of my eating meat, they have the right to say so, to argue with me, to show me reasons why perhaps I shouldn’t eat meat. If this friend and I care about our friendship, we will find a way to strike a balance between discussing this issue all the time (because it’s so important to my friend) and never discussing it (because it’s a source of conflict.)

When I say, “People shouldn’t do X,” please don’t take that to mean, “People shouldn’t be allowed to do X.” Those are two very different questions.