Follow Up To Vegetable   4 comments

Visitor Paul dropped by to leave a comment regarding my last post.  It deserves some attention, so although I replied there I’m un-burying the lede and re-posting it here.

Paul sez:

It’s PZ Myers, incidentally.  [ed note: I misspelled Professor Myer’s patronymic]

Great post, I agree with Megan. Interesting about PZ Meyers–although I’d never heard of him–Philip Pullman always bothered me for this very reason–although he is actually one of, I believe, the most brilliant authors around, and I love his books, his outspoken, snide, supercilious atheism drives me bonkers. Again, it’s not the atheism per se, but the assumption that anyone who cares about their religion is by default an ass… [for clarification, this is another comment to which Paul was responding]

As opposed to the default assumption by most religious folks that anyone that is an atheist is morally and ethically bankrupt, and/or really believes in God and is just rebelling? That never seems to bother most people. Your critique seems very one-sided, and is one reason many atheists are happy there are people like Pullman and Myers willing to be outspoken and blunt about these things. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but nothing is.

My reply was thus:

> It’s PZ Myers

Fixed, thank you Paul.

> As opposed to the default assumption by most religious folks that anyone that is an atheist
> is morally and ethically bankrupt, and/or really believes in God and is just rebelling?

This is an over-generalization, and it’s simply not generally true. That said, it may be true in your particular community… if so, in my opinion this sort of behavior ought to be condemned outright. I spent a good long time in Catholic school, and I knew quite a few atheists. None of them were regarded as morally or ethically bankrupt. In fact, during my comparative religion class, the Jesuit teaching the class started day one by saying that, “About half the people that take this class become really good Catholics. The other half become atheists. Both of those results are successes in my book.” I know three people who went to a seminary (three different denominations); they’re all atheists or agnostics now.

> That never seems to bother most people.

Again, you’re overgeneralizing, although it may be true in your particular community. Among people I know, this is actually regarded as a pretty big problem.

> Your critique seems very one sided, and is one reason many atheists are happy there are people like
> Pullman and Myers willing to be outspoken and blunt about these things.

I’ve visited PZ’s blog a few times, and I’ve heard this. I’ve also heard more than one person say that people like PZ and Pullman let them know that it was okay for them to be atheists and they weren’t monsters for not believing in God. While I’m glad that these people find out that they’re not monsters, I don’t know that because PZ was the first person to tell them so he deserves a pass for behavior I think is generally harmful.  [ed note: Phil Plait is another good example of someone who can fight the woo without deliberately being a jerk, so finding PZ before Phil should not give bonus credence to PZ’s methodology]

There are lots of people who are atheists who are critical of religions on the grounds that parts of the religion deserve criticism. That doesn’t make it okay to ridicule people’s beliefs universally [ed note: it breaks rule #3, unless you’re an atheist who used to attend a seminary].

To be clear, I have no problem with anyone, religious, atheist or otherwise, critiquing a church’s stance on public policy. Fire away at the Pope’s stance on contraception… he’s said things that simply are not supported by evidence and he should be called out on it.

I have no problem whatsoever with anyone, religious, atheist or otherwise, critiquing a moral stance adopted by someone who is religious as being an unacceptable reason for seeking public policy change. Catholics who oppose abortion must admit that their stance is based fully and entirely upon their theological position of what constitutes human life, ergo they have no business trying to make it illegal, as it violates the Establishment clause. Moreover, it’s a waste of time and resources. If you want to reduce abortions, find out what sorts of things reduce unwanted pregnancies (like contraception) and what sorts of things give pregnant mothers who don’t want a child a reason to carry the pregnancy to term (like, your financial support and compassion).

I don’t have a problem with anyone stating baldly that a religious dogma that contradicts science is wrong. People who claim that the earth is 10,000 years old are wrong, period… and their right to be wrong ends when they try and establish it as a reason for public policy decisions or even teach other people that their beliefs are correct without fear of contradiction.  But lots of smart people believe things that are wrong (check out Tesla’s Wikipedia page). *This does not make them stupid, it just makes them wrong*.

I have a real problem with anyone who believes that their intellectual correctness gives them carte blanche to condemn or ridicule a human social organization outright, without fully understanding or studying it, simply because it has a public position that is wrong. The Catholic church, for example, has been around for a very long time. The Catholic church, as an organization, has done some horrible things. It’s legitimate to point those things out as a reason why we ought to be glad we don’t live in a theocracy. But it’s bankrupt to claim that because these things have happened, that the church has done no good; that’s like claiming that because the U.S. broke some treaties and screwed over the native American population that the U.S. government has done no good.

As for my critique being very one-sided… I’m sorry, but I don’t see it that way at all [ed note – I don’t think Paul has read much of my blog].  For every person who enjoys PZ’s style of just calling anyone who claims a faith an outright idiot, there’s someone who enjoys doing exactly what you mentioned earlier; calling atheists morally bankrupt and disparaging their ethical character. This rightly angers you when it is applied in your direction, no? So why do you consider *intentionally angering someone with whom you disagree* to be a legitimate form of social discourse?

The fact is, once you accept the label “Culture Warrior”, you’re accepting a role of self-righteousness.  Even if your stance is correct, you do not generally win converts from the other side by being self-righteous.  If your claim is that you’re fighting a lack of knowledge, how can you possibly justify deliberately couching your message in an envelope of scorn and ridicule?  Certainly, people who think like you may flock to your cause, and raise your banner.  By your original premise… you’re not trying to reach those people.  You’re supposedly trying to reach the ones who believe things that are wrong, and by your very presentation they are not going to listen to you.  In fact, they are going to turn around and accuse you of being things you aren’t (such as immoral or unethical).

[edited to add] –  Paul has some follow up comments (read the comment thread for more details), but this ought to be sucked into the main post:

I cited another poster in the comments and meant my second paragraph as a response to what I cited.

This is one of the unfortunate drawbacks of the blogging medium and the comment thread mechanism, it is sometimes difficult to follow threads of thought without getting confused what people are actually talking about.  Mis-attribution on my part leads to a post that may seem overly critical, because Paul wasn’t talking about what I thought he was talking about.  Comment thread is an interesting read, though, so I’m not going to tag this post as “unnecessary” 🙂

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Posted March 25, 2009 by padraic2112 in philosophy, rants, religion, science, social, Theme Thursday

4 responses to “Follow Up To Vegetable

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  1. I’m flattered that I got my own blog post response. That’s the first time that ever happened.

    Good post, although a little misdirected. Incidentally, I found your blog quite some time ago via Schneier’s and have been lurking for a long time (longer than I’ve followed Pharyngula, even).

    I don’t disagree with your points. I did not intend my comment as a critique of your post (aside from the spelling correction) — I cited another poster in the comments and meant my second paragraph as a response to what I cited. Paraphrasing, it was mentioned that Pullman was a good author and it’s just too bad that he thought religious folks were asses by default. I was calling her presentation of that point one-sided because there are a lot of examples where the opposite is true (trading anecdote for anecdote, as it were). It just always seemed to me like atheists end up with the short end of the stick when comparing anecdotes.

    I’ve actually seen you comment on Myers’ blog regarding tone and agreed with your points there. I do feel that you are fair in your presentation of material, and since the blog post was a list of people that bother you it would be a bit silly of me to critique it. Like I know what bothers you more than you do :-).

    I did not mean to sound as if I was trying to excuse Myers (not that he needs it, he’s a grown-up and can do whatever he wants and deal with the consequences) or say that intentionally angering those who you disagree with is a good way to win converts. Incidentally, I think your end paragraph in this post is actually hitting the truth, and Myers has no intention of trying to win converts. Myers plays to his audience, who are mostly atheists that seem to want a place to vent about religion and social policies. I can’t imagine someone directing a theist they are trying to “convert” to Pharyngula. There are plenty of better places for that. There are better places for social commentary as well. So while I agree that PZ Myers is a very bad example of how to convince people of anything, I think that got left behind as a primary goal of his blog some time ago.

  2. I feel bad for such a non-reply to a well-reasoned blog post, so I’ll give my thoughts point-by-point.

    This is an over-generalization, and it’s simply not generally true. That said, it may be true in your particular community… if so, in my opinion this sort of behavior ought to be condemned outright. I spent a good long time in Catholic school, and I knew quite a few atheists. None of them were regarded as morally or ethically bankrupt. In fact, during my comparative religion class, the Jesuit teaching the class started day one by saying that, “About half the people that take this class become really good Catholics. The other half become atheists. Both of those results are successes in my book.” I know three people who went to a seminary (three different denominations); they’re all atheists or agnostics now.

    Is it not true? There are plenty of people even among atheists decrying Pullman, Dawkins, and Myers, but where are the Christians openly calling out Dobson, Donohue, Comfort, et. al? And I’m talking about serious criticism, not the Catholics calling out the Christians and vice versa on points of religion to further their specific religious agenda. Since there are several times as many Christians as there are atheists, you’d think you’d hear more of them calling for tolerance and fair play for all. You had a favorable upbringing with such religious liberals as the Jesuits, but they hardly hold the majority perspective.

    I can’t argue that I’m not overgeneralizing, but from what I’ve seen and who I’ve associated with (in rl and online) my experience is much closer to the norm than yours. Of course, I was brought up in an evangelical tradition instead of Catholic. But Southern California isn’t exactly the Bible Belt, so I can’t imagine they are more extreme here than most other places in the US.

    [ed note: Phil Plait is another good example of someone who can fight the woo without deliberately being a jerk, so finding PZ before Phil should not give bonus credence to PZ’s methodology]

    I’d like to add mention of Ebonmuse (daylightatheism.org , ebonmusings.org) here. Aside from that, I pretty much agree with the rest of the preceding paragraph. But as you would have heard when you stopped by Pharyngula, it’s his blog and he can run it how he wants.

    There are lots of people who are atheists who are critical of religions on the grounds that parts of the religion deserve criticism. That doesn’t make it okay to ridicule people’s beliefs universally [ed note: it breaks rule #3, unless you’re an atheist who used to attend a seminary].

    You’re conflating criticism and ridicule, so I’m not sure exactly what you are saying here.

    It’s quite possible to read many somethings on religion without attending seminary. Hell, atheists can be much more well-read on people’s beliefs than someone who attended seminary, which would tell you little about Buddhism, Sikhism, Mormonism, Voodoo, Hinduism…shall I go on? I’m against universal condemnation of beliefs, but when people consider someone saying “there is no God” as condemning their beliefs there is really no way to get around it. And you can say I’m overgeneralizing, but consider yourself more enlightened than the masses.

    I’ll also take this chance to note that many people have no problem with universally ridiculing atheism (most people don’t criticize atheism or specific atheists, they ridicule atheism en masse…and please don’t bother counter-arguing by bringing up Jesuits or Jews, neither are all that large a population) without reading any atheist writings. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander? Why should atheists be held to a higher standard?

    To be clear, I have no problem with anyone, religious, atheist or otherwise, critiquing a church’s stance on public policy. Fire away at the Pope’s stance on contraception… he’s said things that simply are not supported by evidence and he should be called out on it.

    I think you linked the wrong blog post. But yeah, I found it particularly egregious that the Pope will go to Africa to discourage condom use yet not find it worth stating that virgin/infant rape does not cure AIDS. Disgusting priorities.

    As for the rest, I already covered it in my previous comment and have no more to add..

  3. There are plenty of people even among atheists decrying Pullman, Dawkins, and Myers, but where are the Christians openly calling out Dobson, Donohue, Comfort, et. al?

    This is a fair point. They are <a href=”http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/06/27/AR2008062702490.html” out there, to be sure, but they certainly don’t get much awareness. There are <a href=”http://www.catholic-sf.org/news_select.php?newsid=33&id=98″ active debates among educators about the proper role of theology in education, and they don’t get a lot of mainstream attention, either. How much of this is a lack of follow-through on their part and how much of it is reporting?

    One sad fact is that people who claim to be religious usually aren’t; they’re dogmatic but only with a very limited understanding of the theology that backs the dogma. Those people don’t actively explore that which they claim to believe, so when controversies are going on in theological circles, they simply don’t pay attention. To some extent, this means there is no media market for theological conflict, and it doesn’t get reported. On the other hand, atheists vs deists is a topic that those who claim to be religious eat up, so there is a market for that news.

    My experience is much closer to the norm than yours. Of course, I was brought up in an evangelical tradition instead of Catholic. But Southern California isn’t exactly the Bible Belt, so I can’t imagine they are more extreme here than most other places in the US.

    I’ll grant you this is possible. In fact, given the number of people who claim to be religious in this country, I’ll grant you that it may be likely. I can’t claim immunity to social context, and my educational environment up through undergraduate degree definitely skewed towards liberal moderates socially, regardless of theology, so conflicting ideas were usually not met with scorn. I’ve also lived nowhere other than California, so my picture of the United States is limited by consumption of anecdotes.

    I have noticed, however, that online communities do have a tendency to swing the other way; social news sites like Reddit or Digg lean towards liberal moderates who claim to be rational empiricists, and there it is more likely that religion of any sort is met with the sort of scorn you see on PZ’s site. The original rant of “people I’m getting annoyed at” was aimed at that context, not the general overall context of real life society.

    You’re conflating criticism and ridicule, so I’m not sure exactly what you are saying here.

    Actually, what I was trying to point out is that some people conflate their legitimate criticism with a license to ridicule.

    I’ll also take this chance to note that many people have no problem with universally ridiculing atheism without reading any atheist writings

    Oh sure, and this also plainly violates rule #3, and it is perfectly legitimate to call them out for it. Maybe I should add to my vegetable post and add people that do this to my list. They’re sort of included in “idealogues”, but in the interests of fair and balanced ranting, they may warrant their own note.

  4. Thanks for the response.

    In general I agree with your comment on online communities, but that could just be because I frequent places that fit the bill through my own choice. Have you considered the effect of selection bias on your observation that online communities slant liberal/rational empiricist? I can name many right wing and/or religious online communities, as well as efforts by them to disrupt the more liberal areas of the web (for example, YouTube votebots to downrank atheist/pro-evolution videos).

    Not that there is anything wrong about ranting from your own perspective as opposed to trying to consider every possible viewpoint. I wouldn’t worry about “fair and balanced” ranting…when you have to think about all angles, it becomes more of an essay than a rant!

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