Is it Even Possible to be an Outspoken Atheist and Not Be Accused of Being Offensive? And Why Do We Care So Much If We Are Offensive?

Before addressing the questions framing this post, I’d like to make a quick aside. Yes, I realize that today is Christmas—and a sincere Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone. My writing the sorts of articles I’ve been writing the last few days, I assure you, is not a deliberate attempt to rain on the holiday parade of any religious person. It is merely coincidental, based on i) the fact that I happened to start my blog a week ago—which, too, was coincidental with respect to the time of year—and ii) had received some backlash on an article I posted on Sunday, which has resulted in the types of things I’ve been writing about being on my mind a fair bit.

Okay, as to the topic at hand:

In my experience, it has not been possible to be an outspoken atheist and not be labeled as offensive.

I’m not talking about just admitting that one is an atheist freely. I mean being the type of atheist that I am who in a certain range of social settings will be willing to say that I think religious belief is irrational and most probably delusional. Is it even remotely possible to not be offensive in doing this? I mean, it makes sense that it’s not—who likes being told that some of their core beliefs are misguided and almost definitely deluded? Who likes being commented on with terms like “delusion” and “irrational”, terms that tend to be used most frequently when discussing psychopaths and people that one views as less cognitively able? I can surely have sympathy for this.

 So it may not be possible to be the type of outspoken atheist that I am describing without being offensive. Here’s another question: Why do we actually care if we are offensive? I argue that rather than being driven first-and-foremost by compassion for our fellow humans, the primary force behind our “respect” is actually the fear and coercion created by economically, politically and numerically huge religious organizations. Our respect is often not so much genuine respect as it is submission. Please read on below the fold.

It’s pretty clear that our social tact in addressing religion is not due primarily to genuine compassion for not hurting people’s feelings. As I’ve pointed out in other writings on this blog, how often would most of us show similar consideration to cult members, believers in What the Bleep Do You Know? and The Secret type New Age beliefs (regardless of how uplifting such beliefs may be), or people dogmatically committed to particular schools of philosophy, political ideologies, and so on? How many of us feel like we’re doing something wrong when we criticize a person who takes existentialist philosophy just a bit too far? How many of us condemn the conservative who criticizes the beliefs of the liberal, or vice versa? Is it a standard practice in the mental health professions to assess schizophrenic patients to see if they are likely to be dangerous to others, and if not, out of sympathy for their feelings not tell them that they are experiencing delusions?  Heck, people are even willing to be a little—and sometimes a lot—more aggressive toward less powerful religions like Mormonism—though I must admit, Mormonism does seem to be an order of inanity higher than its cultural competitors. As I’ve argued before, while legitimate and justifiable compassion is a factor underlying the tact in many of us, it is not the root cause and is often not the primary efficient cause of our delicateness with respect to religion. The primary factor, I argue, is political power. It is the political power of religious groups that plays a more substantial role, I argue, than any other factor in garnering a disproportionate amount of social sensitivity toward the members of dominant faith groups. 

Consider the following. If one person believed in Christ, they’d probably be labeled schizophrenic—how many times in human history has it happened that we write-off as kooky the person who claims to be Christ or some other messiah and anyone that beliefs in this person? Moving on, if 100 believed in Christ, it’d be a cult—I’m not sure of this, but didn’t some or many Jews believe that early Christianity–shortly after the death of Christ–was a cult? But as the number of members grows and grows it becomes increasingly risky to question the judgment of the believers.

Some will make the obvious point “well, if so many people are subscribing to this belief, maybe there’s something special about it”. I suspect that the chances of this are remarkably small. While the books might actually be relatively special when it comes to effectively teaching personally and socially valuable moral and life lessons, that they are special in a supernatural sense is highly doubtful. As I’ve discussed before, there is plenty of reason to believe based on cognitive scientific research that humans have a sort of inborn tendency to over-infer agency, or mindedness, particularly human-like mindedness (for information on this, check out work by Pascal Boyer, including his popular book Religion Explained). We do it all the time, with animals, insects, and unusual, unprobable and poorly understood phenomena (e.g., when a person wins a lottery, they may infer that some sort of intelligent intervention occurred; when they run into a person they’d been thinking about lately, they may view this coincidence as having been a bit too coincidental to have had occurred simply by accident—some intelligence was involved; when humans didn’t understand germs and thunder, they proposed witches and Thor; societies in existence TODAY still believe in ancestral spirits and demons, invoking them to explain good and bad fortune). Human biases toward psychological anthropomorphizing, selectively remembering co-occurences (e.g., upon seeing someone I remember that I had just been thinking about them yesterday, but I simply forget about all the people I’d been thinking about and hadn’t seen shortly after), and so on make us vulnerable to regular and systemic lapses in reasoning. Considering our well-known tendency toward agency attribution along with our even more well-known tendency to take our beliefs and receive and provide support for these beliefs in our familial and community contexts, mere popularity of belief is not for me a compelling argument for genuine specialness, over and above specialness as a moral and life teacher, and specialness of the group to outcompete rival groups in cultural and political competition. There have been thousands of supernatural mythologies created in human history along with thousands of human tribes and societies. In every cultural and political contest there are winners and losers. The longstanding religions we still have with us today, I argue, are more likely to simply be cultural and political winners rather than products of the divine.

Another question I may ask in a future writing is Are we really doing believers and the world as a whole any favours by being complicit in the cultural practice of normalizing belief without evidence and being deeply emotionally invested in such beliefs, be they religious or secular?

8 Responses to “Is it Even Possible to be an Outspoken Atheist and Not Be Accused of Being Offensive? And Why Do We Care So Much If We Are Offensive?”
  1. Bad says:

    I disagree with you that respect is simply a measure of undue subservience. Respect is an ethos: it keeps us honest ourselves, and keeps us focused and dispassionate enough to be accurate instead of blithely dismissive.

    One can be respectful and still make some very pointed critiques of religious claims. And if you are called offensive even for that, so be it. But at least you didn’t demean yourself to get there.

  2. curtismchale says:

    It is unfortunate that you have not found at least respectful disagreement in your travels. I have also found that my stronger religious views are not always received well in life. It seems we would both love the same thing, respectful tolerance and meaningful discussion regarding differing beliefs. Maybe it has to start with us respecting differing beliefs. Happy Holidays.

  3. ronbrown says:

    To Bad and Curtis McHale:
    Thanks for writing.

    Firstly, Bad:

    I didn’t mean to imply that this respect is solely a measure of undue subservience—I just said that the political power of religious organizations is the primary root cause and the most prominent factor underlying religious belief. If it weren’t, then why don’t we treat everyone who sincerely holds beliefs on what in any other domain than religion would be considered insufficient evidence? As I said, how many of us treat modern day astrologers, cult members, believers in sasquatch, and so on with as much compassion as we do religious people?

    Oh, sorry, I may have given a false impression. I have definitely found plenty of respectful disagreement. In fact, I would imagine that most of the disagreement has been respectful, actually.
    The issues were simply if
    1) it were possible to not offend. And for obvious reasons it seems that it’s not if you actually say that you think religious beliefs are irrational and delusional–I mean, how could one express this honest position in a way that is not offensive to most? No amount of cleaning it up, making sure there is no unnecessarily aggressive phrasing, no mockery, and the like will declaw this idea in the minds of most religious people, as far as I can tell.
    2) why do atheists care in the first place? Is it because of some genuine compassion, or is this compassion merely the tip of the iceberg and at most a facet of the total drive (in most atheists) to be tactful or, in most cases, not critique religious belief at all, with the fear and coercion produced by the huge and powerful religious majority–particularly religious moderates–being the true primary root cause of religious sensitivities among atheists. And this religious sensitivity has been argued to go beyond just atheists, but to also include first and foremost the religious moderate population who exert the most economic and numeric power and the most pressure to not criticize the religious beliefs of others no matter what the sociopolitical context. However, among moderates I would imagine that there is a greater likelihood of compassion even in the hypothetical situation of withdrawn religious political power, as religious moderates would likely be able to have more empathy for the believer of what we call “religious faith”, versus whatever we collectively call things like astrology, alchemy, psychism, belief in sasquatch, etc.

  4. kip says:

    Ron, you have a wonderful blog. I too have found a great deal of tolerance from most people. I will say this, though: It seems that those whose beliefs are the most extreme are the least tolerant. Would you agree?

  5. Jeff Marshman says:

    If we were to treat religion as a set of beliefs, and faith as an unquestioning commitment to the unjustified (unjustifiable?) preservation of those beliefs, then I would agree with you whole-heartedly: religion in that case would be, in my eyes, delusional.

    However, I don’t see this as true. I think this may be where the problem lies and why you can’t help but offend some people. I suggest reading some cultural anthropology (a la Clifford Geertz for example). You may find that religion seems to be a much more complex and profound phenomenon than I feel you give it credit. Part of the reason that some might get offended is that they feel you impose a rather ‘superficial’ (I don’t mean that condescendingly) caricature of religion on them. If that’s the case, then no amount of discussion will bridge the gap between you and whomever you are speaking with, because you’ve already made up your mind about WHAT religion is (and, on that conception, you fairly find it irrational) and therefore are only interested in HOW they can be committed to it.

    Fundamentally, religion is NOT an epistemic project. I don’t think you can explain it away in terms of agency projection and other cognitive mechanisms/tendencies that produce this ‘irrational nonsense.’

    Seriously though, if you’re interested I can recommend some good literature from cultural anthropology that I’m sure could offer you a more coherent and comprehensive account than myself.

  6. ronbrown says:

    Jeff: I’m definitely interested in getting a more comprehensive understanding of the religious experience.

    I can fully appreciate that religion is about far more than certain statements which are either true or false. It’s about providing a personal and social framework that helps people find meaning, community, purpose, and fellowship in personal development (e.g., development of self-understanding, wisdom) and social development, and it encourages humanity to not become too wrapped up in themselves as this will just create a society of cold self-isolating people full of neuroticism and lacking in compassion. In all of this, I can see the value in looking up to the positive teachings of Christ—I still need to learn more about what he has said, because I continually hear quotes of him saying things that are not nearly as warm as “love your neighbour”–different people seem to pull out of him radically different interpretations.

    Everything I just said above though can be said about Buddhism. Buddhism can be pursued without taking on any supernatural beliefs–in these cases, you’d be doing things like meditation and studying Buddhist philosophy, and not necessarily buying into reincarnation and actual karma (though, perhaps karma could be viewed as internal psychological self-harm caused by differentiating oneself from the environment rather than disolving the self-world division and loving your surroundings like yourself–nice Christian connection there.

    But I just don’t see why Christians need to believe in the apparently irrational beliefs of things like the Christian God, virgin birth, etc. Just like Buddhism can apparently be stripped of irrationality and still carry amazing value as a practical and intellectual philosophy, couldn’t Christianity be worked out in a similar way? For me, the ideal would be to establish a community groups which integrated the rational and enriching philosophies and approaches from Buddhism, the monotheisms and other religions, secular schools of thought, and so forth, to ultimately bring people together to do things like engage in mindfulness meditation, more physical approaches to mindfulness like tai chi, philosophical study on matters such as living wisely and morally, doing good for the community–internal and outside of the group, and having a good time together. The overall aims being to foster the individual and interpersonal development of all members, to maintain a positive and wise community that attempts to do that does good for and sets an example to the rest of society and so on. I feel like these are among the most important things in life and they can and should be done without the need for faith in the supernatural. If anything, they could very well be pursued more effectively without any supernatural faith as if everything is based on reason, then one need not have the sorts of internal conflicts that faith could have and their need not be the types of limitations on conduct that such beliefs could have. I have heard it argued that meditation is impeded if one assumes a dualist distinction between mind and body. A strict commitment to this soul-body distinction could impede one’s pursuit of self-awareness, insight and wisdom via meditation.

    Perhaps religious codification has been the cause of many of the problems of religion. Indeed, this is not the first time that this has been suggested. Chris Hedges, for one, has said it. Such codification can rigidify religion, potentially leading to dogmatism rather than continual evolution. I recently read Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained–very interesting, by the way. Boyer, an Anthropologist as well as Psychologist, gives a brief history of the great monotheisms. Contrary to the intuitive theory that religions started off with a particular structure and spread out as more and more churches were owned, apparently religious practice was far less structured initially but as more cultural competitors emerged in order to protect their share of the market the dominant religion would came to operate sort of like a major franchised chain of restaurants or stores–establishing protocols, as well as texts. In this way, the dominant religion branded itself and could have control over who was in and who was not (sort of like a professional association like the Canadian Medical Association). This coincides with the notion that codification is a source of rigidity–the intent of this codification was standardization. The bigger the religious organization, the harder it is to coordinate changes.

  7. Andrew says:

    Ron, you keep mentioning this book by Pascal Boyer – it’s all very fascinating and I’d love to read it. Thanks! I always love hearing about interesting books.

    I’d like to respond to the issue of respect, and in particular two questions:
    – Why do we actually care if we are offensive? [usually it’s really just submission!]
    – Are we really doing believers and the world as a whole any favours by being complicit in the cultural practice of normalizing belief without evidence and being deeply emotionally invested in such beliefs, be they religious or secular?

    First, I wholeheartedly agree with you when you say that the ‘respect’ we give ‘believers’ is often just a form of submission. To touch on the second question while commenting on this one as well, I think it’s a deeply pernicious way of thinking, one that appears innocuous and even admirable on the surface but is rotten at its core. It’s this idea of ‘owing respect’ to anything and everything that’s religious for no real reason. You can hear it in the tone of voice people take when they talk about religion and religious practices. They can be talking about the most inane practices or beliefs that have no semblance of reasons behind them at all but people still put them up on this pedestal of ‘respect’. Religious belief enjoys a privileged status where you aren’t even allowed to gesture at questioning it. Even if you don’t take the position that religion is false and harmful, it is still harmful to treat any beliefs like this. When you disallow scrutiny and suppress all criticism, you deny change and ensure stagnation. Can anyone actually argue that this is a good thing? Are our societies all perfect? Are all our beliefs perfect? Hardly. Dedicated and unrelenting doubt, inquiry, and reasoning are the only way we will ever improve upon them.

    When it comes down to it, there is no possible justification for even generally /discouraging/ criticism (though criticism can be withheld in specific situations because of time constraints, prudence, etc.). Something that continually frustrates me is that people are woefully incapable of being subject to questions and doubt, and I’m confident that in most cases this is simply because they’re not used to it and fail to see the simple value in this. Every time someone contradicts or criticizes what you say, you have an opportunity for self-growth, whether it’s through change or through justified reinforcement of your beliefs. The trouble is that hardly anyone seems to have the strength for it, or won’t allow themselves to believe they have the strength for it.

    The point I’m trying to make is that we “respect” people far too much in the sense of being “polite” which is often nothing more than a euphemism for biting one’s tongue when there is some objection that obviously can or should be said. To be clear, I am not trying to recommend that we all start yelling and getting in each others’ faces every time there’s a slight disagreement, I don’t think this would be productive or advisable a tall. But I think we need to redefine what it means to respect someone.

    Is it more respectful for me to allow someone to be a complete fool and spout off about how he believes there are fairies at the bottom of the garden, or is it more respectful of me to raise questions and point out flaws or weaknesses that they clearly haven’t addressed, or even simply may not have noticed? If the goal is stagnation, abnegation, and denial of change, then certainly it is more “respectful” to allow them to be a complete fool and profess loudly whatever silly beliefs they may have. But if the goal is anything at all to do with growth, the protection and interests of ourselves and all others, then questioning is at LEAST respectful or allowed, if not morally admirable and beneficial for all involved. There is no reason that we cannot calmly use words to question and discuss whatever is publicly of interest.

    To rephrase simply and straightforwardly, in sum:

    Free inquiry is bad if change AS SUCH is bad.
    Change as such is not bad, merely neutral.
    Free inquiry is good if things like change, growth, rational development are good (because it almost unavoidably leads to them).
    Things like change, growth, rational development are good.
    Therefore, free inquiry is good.

    Here’s a great phrase that I think is very powerful and should be remembered by all:
    “de omnibus dubitandum” – all is to be doubted. (credit goes to René Descartes – though his status as a respected philosopher absolutely does not lend any “authority” to the phrase, and in fact is someone I have very little respect for philosophically)

    I don’t oppose stepping on anyone’s toes if they can’t handle doubt and inquiry, and I really don’t think anyone else should either, except in extreme matters of prudence (use your imagination.. religious extremists would likely be involved here). I would argue at some more length that it’s almost certainly more harmful NOT to raise these questions, but I think I’ve talked quite enough for now.

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  1. […] They often frame the treatment of religious beliefs in terms of respect, civility and compassion. I have argued that these considerations are merely the tip of the iceberg, with main operative factor being […]

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