One of the issues the atheist community is currently internally debating is the issue of strategy: How to go about achieving our goals; namely a world where religion does not interfere in politics or science (in the classroom or by restricting what science examines), and where non-believers are not demonized or penalized for their disbelief. Basically: How to get us from the current position of religious saturation in all aspects of life to post-atheism where religion isn’t an issue. There are many aspects to this process including how we organize ourselves, what do we call ourselves, how do we best allocate our resources, what court battles do we pick to fight and when, etc… The issue I wanted to talk about today was how should we go about helping the religious to see things our way, thus weakening the power religion has over society and our lives. What I am discussing falls under the umbrella debate on accommodationism/reconciliation (whether science and religion can be compatible. I don’t think they can, but that’s not what I want to focus on). Instead, I would like to discuss how we interact with religious people, the tactics we use, the tone of voice, etc.
The other day I read this post on Rule Hibernia titled “Richard Dawkins doesn’t get it”. Here’s a little excerpt that kinda encompasses the point of the post:
“This is what Dawkins and other don’t get: Some people you just can’t reach. Simple as that. People believe in god and religion for a whole bunch of reasons but the fundamental point is that they are all thinking in a human way, and humans it seems have a natural propensity to believe in rubbish that isn’t true. This applies to pretty much everything, not just religion. Every single atheist on the planet has blind spots, religion just happens to be off their blind spot list. We all believe certain rubbish that’s not true.The biggest mistake atheists make is to try and reason with the religious. I get so bored when I hear religious argument nowadays. I used to engage in it myself but I stopped when I finally got it. You’re not going to convert people to atheism if that is your intention. And if you want to debate for the sake of it then what’s the fucking point in that? You’re just wasting your time. The best way to deal with religious people is humour and ridicule. Slag the shit out of them. Show how retarded they are in a funny way. It makes you feel better and makes a religious person feel worse, but best of all, there is no comeback for ridicule. When you can get others to laugh at a person’s stupidity it’s very difficult for them to come back from it. And let’s face it, making fun of religions is as easy as a Catholic priest raping a 9 year old altar boy with loads of lube.”
Rule Hibernia’s sentiment was reiterated in part by The Good Atheist podcast (episode 107) at the Atheist Alliance International conference in Montreal, QC. Jacob Fortin gave a short speech entitled “Be a dick” (around the 25 minute mark in the podcast) where he highlighted the why it’s sometimes necessary to be a dick. He argues that occasionally it’s best to shame the average believer by showing them how little they know. Yes they will hate you and get defensive, but it might lead them to examine their beliefs later on in an attempt to better defend themselves next time. Secondly, it is important to shatter the notion that anything can be sacred, that something can be beyond questioning and ridicule. Lastly, Jacob said the most important thing being a dick does is that it provides relief for other atheists. He points out, and rightly so, that a lot of atheists are isolated in extremely religious communities and are forced to keep silent day in and day out. It’s like a boiler about to explode. Listening to other atheists ridicule religion provides a refreshing dose of relief.
The counterargument, or “Don’t be a dick” side, was presented at The Amazing Meeting 8 by Phil Plait who gave a speech aptly titled “Don’t be a dick.” In the speech he made the following points: How many people have changed their mind because somebody made them feel awful? How do you tell someone they’re not thinking clearly when they’re not thinking clearly? Our brains are wired for faith; when you debunk a position, you end up reinforcing it. Skepticism is a tough sell: no magic, no afterlife, no higher moral authoritative father figure, no security, no happy ever after. On top of this, our reputation with the rest of society isn’t that great. In many cases people will prefer magic over science and prefer fantasy over reality. People’s sense of identity is wrapped up in their beliefs. With all the odds stacked against us, why the hell would we want to make it harder by insulting people? What is our goal every time we engage somebody? Are we trying to score personal points and make oursevles feel good, or are we trying to win the game?
This issue was also brought up on the podcast Reasonable Doubts. On that episode their guest was accommodationalist Chris Mooney who made the following points: People like Dawkins and PZ Myers are really hostile sometimes; it’s not going to persuade anyone who is not on the fence. If you can’t be calm and rational when talking to another person, you’re not a very good practitioner of reason, but this doesn’t mean we have to be nicey nicey. Mooney and the hosts of Reasonable Doubts brought up a recent study on Science and Religion Today by Geoffrey Munro, professor of psychology at Towson University. The study found the following: people are more receptive to science that might disprove their beliefs if their worth and value as a person are affirmed before they go into it. People don’t make up their mind simply on facts. When people are presented with scientific information that contradicts their beliefs, they tend to devalue science and it’s ability to answer such questions. Basically, shouting at someone and tearing them down does not win them to your side, it only makes them despise you and hold onto their beliefs that much stronger…go figure. (This conclusion is backed up by several other studies, google “backfire effect”)
After the interview with Mooney ended, the hosts continued on to ask these questions: Do we alienate people who could be our allies on some things? What if we were back in the 60′s and you’re trying to get civil rights passed? Do you try and treat racist people with respect, affirming their self-worth, even though they hold such horrible and wrong positions? How do you act differently when you’re debating a factual issue (like the world being 4 billion years old) as opposed to a moral issue (like the catholic church systematically hiding and protecting thousands of child rapists, deterring condom use in AIDs infected Africa, or excommunicating rape victims for having abortions) Should you coddle people when presenting science and ridicule when talking about morality?
The Chariots of Iron podcast has also talked about this a bit. In episode 29, titled “Counter-evangelism” (starts around 1:11:00) they suggest the following approach: Don’t be a dick, avoid arguing with them, instead use the Socratic method till they hang themselves. Play stupid and get them to say out loud the ridiculous stuff they believe. Hopefully then ridicule won’t be overly necessary. The whole point is to plant the seed of doubt, not to deconvert them outright. Once the doubt is there, it will start them on the path to deconversion.
So how do I feel about all this? Well it’s a mixed bag. It’s undeniable that the science points to the fact that blasting someone out right for their beliefs will not change their mind. I think it’s obvious that when trying to plant the seed in someone’s head you must do so gently and respectfully. Try not to let them know what you’re actually doing. There is an old Buddhist proverb where Buddha comes across a burning house with children inside. The children do not know the house is on fire, and they won’t understand if he shouts to them to run because of the fire. Instead he calls to them that he has toys outside. The children run out of the house and only after that is he able to explain that the house was on fire. I feel that most of the time we have to act in a similar way. This is not to say we must compromise on the facts, but we must take baby steps. If you can get someone to accept the fact of evolution then that’s a step. After they’re comfortable with that, then you can start slowly working on pushing them further, one step at a time. If you push to hard and too fast, they’ll close up and you’ll never get through to them.
What about ridicule? Is it completely useless and counterproductive? Not entirely. Thomas Jefferson once said “Ridicule is the only weapon that can be used against unintelligible propositions.” Here is where I think Rule Hibernia has a point: There are some people out there that are absolutely impervious to reason and evidence. Ray Comfort, Kirk Cameron, Pat Robertson, Kent Hovind, and Bill Donahue come to mind. Trying to use reason against people who deny that reason is a means of arriving at truth is pure insanity. For these people the goal is different. The goal is not to change their minds, that’s impossible; the goal is to publicly destroy their credibility and integrity. This is where ridicule works best. As the hosts on Reasonable Doubts discussed, I believe the nature of what you’re ridiculing determines how you ridicule. People like Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort make fools of themselves with their factually ridiculous claims about the physical world. Here you can just satirize them without much venom. People like the pope, however, are much more sinister in their transgressions. Despite the fact that the pope and his confederates are guilty of actual crimes, they are also guilty of a great many moral ones. (Like the ones I pointed out earlier) In these cases vicious ridicule would be applicable.
Chris Mooney pointed out that combative authors like Dawkins, PZ Myers, and Hitchens don’t win over converts and I’m inclined to agree. This does not mean that such authors don’t have a role to play. Combative authors are most effective when targeting people sitting on the fence and rallying other atheists to action. Their books, along with podcasts, youtube videos, and local meetup groups are often the only bubble of relief that many atheists can retreat to. When you’re an underpowered and maligned minority, it’s vitally important that you have a minority space. Combative authors and satire play a role in this minority space. Outside, however, ridicule has no place in discussion with another person who’s heart and mind you’re trying to win over. It only alienates and deemns them and reflects poorly on you if your positions can’t stand on their merits alone.