9/15/10

Ecumenical Atheism

Jerry Coyne isn't mincing words today. A science-friendly minister commented at his blog--at length, respectfully, calmly, intelligently--and said things Coyne considered completely wrong.  Today Coyne writes (in a post to his readers) "The proper response to this kind of argument is derisive laughter."  He goes on to talk about a rabbi who wrote a column at HuffPo. After quoting his first point, he says, "If you can swallow this kind of stuff with laughter instead of nausea, have a look at the rabbi’s three other explanations."

This is the sort of thing people associate with "new atheism," and that's why there's a lot of talk in the blogsphere about "tone."  Here's what occurs to me as a good guideline: atheists should speak about religion with the same tone we want to see when Christians talk about/to Muslims, or Muslims about/to Jews, or Jews about/to Hindus, etc etc.  If a Muslim comes to a Christian blog and talks at length, respectfully, calmly, intelligently, do we want the Christian to respond as Coyne did?  Or turn it around.  Should Muslims speak that way about Christians? That model occurs to me because of all the ugly talk about Muslim these days -- Brian Leiter has choice examples here

What we want between members of different religious groups is, in a word, "tolerance."  Tolerance isn't relativism. It isn't the idea that each person has their own truth. It also isn't anti-realism.  You can be tolerant and think that one religion is true, and the rest false. Now, there are limits. I can laugh at the Westboro Baptist Church and Pastor Jones, the almost-Koran-burner, but that's because I'd be laughing at people who are grossly disrespectful.  These people waive their right to certain (but not all) forms of respect.  Obviously, the minister at Coyne's blog is no Pastor Jones.

Can tolerance really be expected from atheists? You might think No. After all, Christians and Muslims (for example) have things in common. They "believe in belief," as Dennett puts it. They're pro-religion.  They're often said to worship the same God (does that concept even make sense, if there isn't a god?).  So you might think there's more of a basis for mutual respect there. But surely not really. It's a huge, huge thing to disagree about the divinity of Jesus.  It's got to shock Christian sensibilities that Jews and Muslims "just say no."  It's got to shock Muslim sensibilities for the Koran not to be seen as the word of God, by Christians and Jews.  There's plenty of room for sharp disagreement between members of different religions, as history painfully proves.  So surely it's not true that atheists disagree with all religious people just too much for mutual respect to be a possibility.

So here's my suggestion to atheists: speak to the religious as you would have Christians speak to Jews, Jews to Muslims, etc.  Making it sound more Kantian than Golden Rule-ish:  conduct yourself in a way you could universalize.  In other words:  follow the policy, where tone is concerned, that you'd want everyone else to follow.  How 'bout it?

21 comments:

Tom Morris said...

"speak to the religious as you would have Christians speak to Jews, Jews to Muslims, etc."

That rather presumes Coyne isn't doing that. Perhaps Coyne would rather like it if when a Jew hears a Muslim attempt to present arguments, he'd evaluate them amd snort derisively if the arguments were silly. And Coyne is simply treating religious people in the same way he'd like religious people to treat each other.

I'm sure that many of the "new atheists" would be more than happy for all religious people to laugh at bad arguments. They'd just say "okay, now apply the same standard to your own religious beliefs".

And when an argument truly is bad, we don't have to take it seriously. If someone came into a roomful of engineers and told them that the only thing that keeps bridges in the air is the presence of faeries, we wouldn't need a big debate about 'tone' if the engineers took the person with anything other than total seriousness. In fact, such a person should be laughed out of the room.

I'd suggest "Religion is true if you accept my bizarre definition of truth" is as worthy of ridicule as the idea that bridges need faeries to remain standing.

Gurdur said...

No, not when Jerry Coyne actually misrepresented the commentator in question - who had already said twice before that religious stories were metaphors or mysteries talking about some underlying truth. Coyne of course massively strawmanned that by not referring to the minister's comments beforehand, but only to one later one where Coyne could twist it to make it sound as if the minister was saying something else. Dishonesty on Coyne's part.

As for the rest, I note that a certain person, one known to all here, is actually (incredibly) whining about tone today, on her blog she's attacking Mooney for his tone.

The Irony Force is strong with this one!

Jean Kazez said...

I would rather focus on this irony: yesterday Coyne complains that Mooney portrays atheists as being too warlike. Today he talks about the minister (a real, named guy who spent a lot of time writing polite, careful comments yesterday) and says his argument is worth no more than "derisive laughter". The rabbi gets even worse--nausea plus laughter.

Obviously, there is a strange rule in operation here. It's OK to BE warlike, but not OK for anyone to say that you're being warlike. I much prefer a more forthright warrior of the Nietzschean variety. Hell yes I'm militant and strident and mocking, and I'm proud of it! I suspect Christopher Hitchens is of that persuasion...if so, good for him.

Aeolus said...

Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same god? If I believe that Jean Kazez of SMU likes vegan cupcakes and someone else believes that Jean Kazez of SMU doesn't, we can reasonably be said to be talking about the same person, even though one of us is wrong about the cupcakes. But if I believe that Jean Kazez is a normal human being and the other person believes Jean Kazez is telepathic and has tentacles, then it's doubtful we're talking about the same being, even if both of us believe that "Jean Kazez" teaches at SMU.

So is disagreeing about the divinity of Jesus akin to disagreeing about cupcakes or to disagreeing about tentacles?

Something I've been meaning to ask: How, if at all, does Methodism manifest itself at Southern Methodist University?

By the way, I like the new look of the blog. Nice and clean.

Jean Kazez said...

The Methodism doesn't manifest itself at all--it's "titular" as you might say (and then titter).

Redesign was courtesy of a new Blogger feature. I like the tabs!

Now about believing in the same God. This is actually an interesting question in the philosophy of language. Your answer is that if associated definite descriptions are different enough, then two people could believe in different Jean Kazezs. One could believe in the cupcake lover, the other in the telepathic tentacle-wearer.

That won't help us much with the God problem if the causal theory of reference is true, and names just mean the things they refer to, and there's no deity. Once upon a time I worked on these things, and that was my preferred view about meaning.

amos said...

In historical terms, there have been horrible, bloody wars between religions, and only fairly recently in historical terms did religions learn to tolerate each other and to dialogue with each other.


Perhaps with time the new atheists will learn tolerance too. It takes some people longer than others to grow up. Mocking others is very common among teenagers; it is part of the process of forming an identity.
One forms a sense of self-worth when young by exaggerating the defects, for instance, the stupidity of members of other identity groups.


Of course, some people are forever young, which has its merits and its defects.

Matti K. said...

Kazez: "Obviously, there is a strange rule in operation here. It's OK to BE warlike, but not OK for anyone to say that you're being warlike."

So expressing one's opinions on one's own forum is waging a war? What are the casualties? Where is the sabotage?

Metaphors are valuable linguistic tools, but I don't think it makes sense to describe all conflicts of opinions as war.

I personally find it very disturbing to label a positive thing (open debate) with a negative descriptor (war). But of course, I'm not an expert in framing.

Jean Kazez said...

Matti K. What you say deserves nothing but derisive laughter. In fact, it makes me nauseated.

There, do you think that's "open debate" and a positive thing--just expressing opinions on my own forum? Or would that be combative--indeed, warlike?

J. J. Ramsey said...

"Metaphors are valuable linguistic tools, but I don't think it makes sense to describe all conflicts of opinions as war."

True, but heated debate in which insults, mockery, and ridicule abound are generally described in terms of war or fighting. PZ Myers himself says things like,

"I say, screw the polite words and careful rhetoric. It's time for scientists to break out the steel-toed boots and brass knuckles, and get out there and hammer on the lunatics and idiots,"

or

"Organizing atheists is like herding lions, or at least ideally it should be. What we want is a community of fiercely independent, roaring, wrestling, arguing, fighting freethinkers; cross them, and you will get rhetorically mauled, and our battles are not about polite batting about with little kitty paws at issues, but should involve claws and fangs and uncompromising forcefulness."

Dawkins is milder than PZ, but even his Chamberlain analogy is also a war metaphor, with the atheists who see things his way cast in the role of Churchill fighting the Nazis.

Given common idiomatic usage and the use of fighting metaphors by some New Atheists, it's hardly reasonable to complain when others use such metaphors to describe the New Atheists' behavior.

Gurdur said...

Matti K wrote:
"So expressing one's opinions on one's own forum is waging a war? What are the casualties? Where is the sabotage?
Metaphors are valuable linguistic tools, but I don't think it makes sense to describe all conflicts of opinions as war.
I personally find it very disturbing to label a positive thing (open debate) with a negative descriptor (war). But of course, I'm not an expert in framing."


Matti K, you should take up your objections with Jerry Coyne then, who seems desperate to frame everything so he doesn't actually have to deal with what critics actually say, but instead childishly dismiss them. After all, it's Jerry Coyne whining about Mooney expressing his opinions in a newspaper, and whining about a minister daring to politely disagree with Coyne on his blog. Coyne's framed these pretty badly - as already said, Coyne chose to misrepresent the minister's actual position.

Truly, the ironies are very very thick on the ground.

Paul said...

I tell ateists that I choose to believe in God. That seems to get the job done. :-)

Gurdur said...

Jean Kazez wrote:

"So here's my suggestion to atheists: speak to the religious as you would have Christians speak to Jews, Jews to Muslims, etc. Making it sound more Kantian than Golden Rule-ish: conduct yourself in a way you could universalize. In other words: follow the policy, where tone is concerned, that you'd want everyone else to follow."

Unfortunately, extremism feeds off extremism. A feature of the Gnu atheists is that they in fact are not into tolerance; they're fighting a Holy War instead. Pastor Terry Jones wanted to burn a Qur'an? PZ Myers abuses President Obama for daring to say it was a bad idea on Jones' part.

To the Gnus, tolerance is something wishywashy and not to be virtued; and were intolerance to grow, it would suit their claims. Note the many accusations by Gnus against other atheists of being "Quislings".

That is rather a characteristic of extremists overall. Polarising the atmosphere is exactly their aim, while tolerance acts mostly to de-polarise. Tolerance is anathema to the ideologically pure in spirit.

Paul said...

Typo:Atheists...

Gurdur said...

Paul, I wonder if you realise that (to the best of my knowledge) every other person on this page so far is in fact an atheist?

You might have some wrong ideas about us.

Jean Kazez said...

Gurdur, Why think that Paul has any wrong ideas about "us"? I think his point was that he's not interested in debating whether God exists with atheists--fair enough!

JJ, Nice examples. I admire the fact that Myers is so forthright about atheist militancy, instead of engaging in it one moment and making a fuss about people who point it out the next. I find that mind-boggling, to be honest.

Faust said...

Everyone is an atheist with regard to some deities. This is one of the reason's it's such a useless term. I once again recommend everyone drop it. Either you are a philosophical naturalist, or you admit to some form of supernaturalism. Some people believe for example in the power of crystals to heal, or ghosts, or nature spirits or what have you.

Anyway.

I am once again struck by the analogy with right/left politics. Tristero a blogger on digbys blog (a left blog), recommends a "derisive laughter" strategy for certain right wing ideas. Derisive laughter is, I think, really just a metaphor (though it can also be applied literally). But what it reaches for is the complete exclusion of a particular idea or set of ideas from common cultural discourse. But the process of inclusion or exclusion of a particular idea or set of ideas from common cultural discourse is not a purely rational process. It is obvious that "rational behavior" is only a tiny slice of human behavior, else history would progress quite differently than it does. Indeed, one cannot make sense of the current political milieu if one tries to understand it as the product of a rational species. This is why politics is so successfully prosecuted by making non-rational appeals.

I do wonder if Coyne breaks out in derisive laughter whenever he comes into contact with religious believers that try to talk to him about their beliefs in person. Somehow I doubt it. I suspect he reserves it as a rhetorical flourish for when he works himself into high as he writes his blog.

On the other hand he DOES have a superior sense of humor...

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, Yes, he has a superior sense of humor. He's also great on cats and evolutionary biology. So I don't believe he's heading for the deepest depths of hell. What I thought was noteworthy about this case is that is that the laughter was aimed at a real visitor to his blog who had been friendly, calm, and constructive. Another academic, not some lunatic. This sort of direct, one-one-one nastiness toward religious folk never happens...or so we were told back in July.

Matti K. said...

JJR: "Given common idiomatic usage and the use of fighting metaphors by some New Atheists, it's hardly reasonable to complain when others use such metaphors to describe the New Atheists' behavior."

Well, I don't think Dr. Coyne was so much complaining, he was wondering where Mooney was getting at:

http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/09/14/spirituality-the-great-communicator-fails-again/

"I’m not sure what this language is about. I myself have used terms like this, but never so profusely! Is this a way of “framing” the discussion, paving the way for Mooney to be the Jimmy Carter of accommodationism?"

My take: Mooney is naive when he tries to frame a complex debate between numerous independent individuals as a "war" between two evil empires, with innocent (accommodationist) bystanders suffering from irreparable collateral damage.

Jean Kazez said...

The funny thing is that Coyne fell into war talk himself, lower in the post--

"Science is at war with faith because it shows that religious 'truths' are bunk, and the faithful realize this."

It's just a question of writing vividly. I think if Mooney had wanted to write a super-super careful essay, he would have had to used a broader vocabulary, but I have no idea why people put him under such a microscope. He thinks the new atheists are unconstructively militant. So what?

Aeolus said...

This just in: Pope declares war on Jerry Coyne.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/sep/16/pope-benedict-xvi-atheist-extremism

Jean Kazez said...

I can't tell you how offensive I find the Pope's speech. Let there be war against such idiocy--verbal, of course.