Wednesday, March 05, 2008

You don't take me seriously, but I'm disrespecting YOU?

I found an odd irony in an exchange recently.

On another blog someone asked if atheists can expect fair treatment from presidential candidates who state their religious beliefs are very important to them in their own lives. While I do think it’s possible for a person to value X, but still understand and respect others who don’t value X, I also understand the reason for the question. Some religious people see their views as simply being their own personal choice, and they don’t really extend that outward to consider what other people might choose. Maybe they don’t care what other people choose so long as we’re all getting along OK. But some religious people express real difficulty even understanding how a person could be moral, trustworthy, or honest (with themselves or others) if they aren’t also religious.

Without asking each person, it’s not possible to know how an individual views their beliefs or how they judge others based on the beliefs others may hold. But it made me recollect an online exchange I had, a very brief one, with a theist recently. And here’s why: I was accused of not being objective when I questioned an inference he made. I asked, “…are you claiming [your argument] is a rational justification for belief in the existence of god (any more than it constitutes rational justification for belief in the existence of fairies)?”

The person was pretty obviously offended by my equating his god to fairies. He became defensive. So, I I responded that I wasn’t trying to be funny, that my question was in all seriousness. He never wrote back.

I have no doubt that this person truly felt I was only trying to get a rise. But I can honestly say I never was. He wrote to an atheist list. He knew in advance that atheists do not believe gods exist. Why it would surprise him that I would equate gods to fairies, in that case, and in all seriousness, I cannot fathom. Apparently, I’m supposed to pretend to grant his belief in god a special status over belief in fairies—even when he knows, before he addresses, me that I don’t. And if his arguments support the existence of fairies as much as the existence of gods, I’m not supposed to notice that or ask about it.

In other words, by expressing my perspective of god’s existence, and by not accepting his view as a given, I’m being offensive. If I say that I—honestly—can’t see how fairies wouldn’t be proven just as much as gods by the arguments he’s providing, I’m not being serious, and I’m just being a jerk. But what’s really happening is that this theist isn’t taking MY position seriously. I REALLY do not see the difference between his belief in god and a belief in fairies. And he refuses to accept that as a serious assertion on my part—even though it is asserted in 100 percent seriousness. Am I offended by that? No. After all, I didn’t go to a theist forum to push my view on anyone. What do I care what he thinks? I was just responding and asking what I thought was a fair question about claims he was making.

But, how does this tie into respect? Well, I respected his belief by treating it like any other. He didn’t care too much for that. But if he’d have come to me saying he could prove fairies, and given me the same arguments he provided for gods, I would just as well have asked, “How would this not also prove leprechauns?” And so on. Would it be offensive to compare fairies to leprechauns in that case—just because someone actually believes in them?

If I can’t even ask a question without being considered an ass; if I can’t give my view without being considered an offensive jerk; If my perspective is automatically interpreted as sarcasm and cruel joking, even though it’s not. How is THAT respect for MY belief (or in this case, lack of it)? What if, instead of asking him how his claim for god did any less to prove fairies exist, I had written back and said, “Well, if you’re just going to write to us with ludicrous claims, trying to be funny about ‘god exists’—I mean, what sort of idiots do you take us for? You can go send your joke e-mails about gods existing to someone else’s list you arrogant prick!”

THAT'S respect? I asked a serious question. He blanketly refused to take me seriously. And it appears to me that he is totally incapable of taking my view seriously on any level. Yet, somehow, that makes ME disrespectful of HIS beliefs.

While I'm not concerned about one online theist, I have to wonder how many others feel this way, or how many politicians share this view? That is a concern. Not an offense (to me, at least), but a real concern.


  1. The other week, I told a Christian that if Heaven had a view into Hell, as in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, it would be no paradise at all for me. Even if everyone I knew among the damned were wiped from my memory, my love of my fellow humans is such that I couldn't be blissful seeing a multitude of strangers broiling infinitely for finite sins. For me, it would amount to a choice between a hell of eternal torture and a hell of eternal sadness.

    The Christian said that such sarcasm undermined my argument. I averred that I meant every word sincerely, but he was reluctant to take my words seriously. In the end, the best he would allow is that maybe I was being just a little sarcastic.

  2. It's easier for the theist to be "offended" by your arguments than to think critically about them. It allows them to bail out of a discussion while saving face, in their own mind. The male ego is a fragile thing. The Christian male ego is even more fragile.

  3. My one and only post on my blog (so far) is the result of this exact situation. I really think theists have developed "taking offense" as a defensive tactic to not address the points being made. It's easier to break off a conversation and then claim victory than it is to actually think rationally.

    In my case, the theist is a 67 year old pastor who, no doubt, has plenty of practice "taking offense". He is also quite good at projecting his flaws onto his opponent.

  4. I did an Atheist Eve on this concept awhile back. I was accused of making a strawman argument. Even though Eve (the ones I conceptualize, I can't speak for Don's), is ALWAYS based on conversations I have or have read online between theists and atheists, I think every one I've ever produced is noted somewhere online as presenting a "strawman." What's really funny is that you can find atheists addressing the same strips, saying, "If I had a dime for every time I've been in those shoes!"

  5. I wonder if this is a matter of framing?

    You surely used faeries in your analogy in order to get across the point that: you see the same amount of evidence for his deeply held belief, as you see for something whimsical in which no serious person believes.

    So, what if you had substituted something in which you knew he had no belief, but which would be un-PC to disregard as a flippant non-entity?

    What if you had said, "...are you claiming [your argument] is a rational justification for belief in the existence of god (any more than it constitutes rational justification for belief in the existence of Allah)?"

    I'm not suggesting such an argument would have been any more appropriate. Your argument was fine of course. But do you think this would this have kept the discussion going?

  6. A friend of mine once became quite hostile when I told him I was an atheist. Even though I hadn't made any disparaging comments about his religion (or any religion for that matter), he said "fuck you" and basically accused me of attacking his beliefs.

    Fallacy of the lonely fact and all that, but I wonder if there is something to the proposition that it is not how we conduct ourselves or frame our arguments that some theists find offensive--it's our atheism itself. Theists of whatever stripe can at least agree on the "virtue" of belief without evidence, but since we atheists lack this belief (at least wrt the existence of a deity), we also lack belief in the virtue of belief without evidence. Perhaps from a theistic perspective, this could be taken as a slap in the face.

    I suppose there's also an emotional dimension (for some theists) to theism that can heighten their sensitivity to atheism. My grandfather passed away a few years ago, and his family fervently believes he's still looking down from heaven. It's a little awkward raising objections to the concept of an afterlife in such an environment.

  7. Ouini:

    I understand what you're saying. But I think it's very different to make the argument that "your argument could stand for any god being," and to make the argument that "Your argument would support any nonexistent item."

    It's not that the theist thinks "Allah does not exist," the theist, at least one's I've met, think Allah is simply a misunderstanding of the true god. Using a god to show that his argument supports god (even another god) doesn't quite make the point.

    What I needed to do was show him that even something _he_ sees as nonexistent can be shown to exist if we take this as evidence for god. His argument was that other dimensions are reasonable justification for belief in god/s. I don't know that he would consider belief in Allah's existence to be a ludicrous proposition. In order to make him understand _my_ perspective, I need to use something he feels certain cannot/does not exist.

    There may be such an item that is more PC, but I'm not aware of it. Just about anything I could use that he would find clearly nonexistent would be something "silly" to believe in, in his head--I would guess.

    I'm not trying to show his argument could prove any god. I'm trying to show it could prove anything that is said to not exist. And I have to use a clearly nonexistent (indisputably nonexistent) item in order to make that point as clearly as possible--to relay my view as clearly as possible of his belief in god.

    His belief in god is as "out there" to me as someone else's belief in fairies would be to him. That's the starting point for me. And if he wants to dialogue with someone who doesn't believe in god/s, he's going to have to be able to wrap his brain around his dialogue partner's perspective.

    If he can't serioulsy understand where I'm starting from--how can there be any dialogue?

  8. Arthur:

    I agree with your points. Recently the Connecticut Valley Atheists put up a holiday display on their city hall lawn (with a permit) that said, "Imagine no religion" and showed the Twin Towers (pre 9-11). They got a ton of criticism for it (and not too little support, I have to add, as well).

    I asked them if the people who criticized them offered any better symbol they could have used to show the positive impact nonbelief could offer the planet? The response was basically that if you put forward any statement of positive atheism, that statement is relative to a positive statement of a planet _without_ belief in god. So, there really is no way to promote positive atheism without some theists seeing it as slamming belief. I agree.

    What I then find ironic, however, is that those same theists don't consider that promoting their theism is a slap in the face to atheists. I don't get offended by people promoting theism. But if they're going to say that promoting atheism is an insult to theists, then any promotion of theism, to them, _must_ also be considered as an insult to atheists.

    But they're disengenuous. If they were honest, this would have to be their stance. By promoting belief X is correct, you negate -X, and that's insulting to those who believe -X. There is no logical reason it wouldn't work for theists just as it works for atheists.

    And that supports your final point that it is an emotional reaction. It's not OK for you to hit me--but that's different than ME hitting YOU. Well, yeah--it doesn't hurt your face when you're the one doing the pounding on my head. I get that. But the question is: If it's OK for you to pound my head (and you do)--what makes you think I should feel a need to refrain from pounding yours if I get the chance?

    Again, I don't freak over theism. But theists who freak over atheism need to go examine a mirror before they start to criticize.

  9. Traci, RE: Your argument would support any nonexistent item.

    Good points. If I think of an item that he finds as "out there" as you now find god, but which he might not be insulted by, I'll let you know.

    Obviously, since you can wrap your brain around his perspective without being offended, he should be able to similarly wrap his brain around yours.

    Traci, RE: no way to promote positive atheism without some theists seeing it as slamming belief.

    I have had a lot of reactions by theists to the revelation that I'm an atheist. One that I remember was a Christian saying something like, "so you must think I'm insane or stupid."

    I think that a theist who understands that their faith is not evidential might, in their head, supply a couple of unstated, and possibly unwarranted suppositions:

    - I claim, "I'm an atheist."

    - The theist might think, "He believes it's irrational or stupid to believe in anything that can't be demonstrated to him by science,

    - The theist then thinks, "my God has not been demonstrated to him by science."

    - The theist says, "You must think I'm stupid. (Q.E.D.)"

    If this is sometimes the case, then some may conclude that promoting atheism is an insult to them, while promoting theism to atheists is _not_ an insult to atheists.

  10. Ouini:

    However, the theist thinks that whatever has him believing a god exists should be easily observed by anyone else. Just look at their arguments about how atheists must be in denial of gods because everyone just knows they exist. Most theists think I'm either lying or blind--and don't hesitate to express that, no matter how nicely or rudely.

    The fact is, its the Xian who generally thinks he's got the "right" answer, and I'm deluded and wrong and perhaps even evil for not seeing what he takes to be obvious. Xians express this pretty openly and pretty often.

    So, while I do think they can reason out that an atheist may think they're stupid, the fact they don't think they're stupid should still bring them back to the reality that by promoting what they believe--that they're system is the one and only truth and all other systems are evil lies--they're just as insulting to others.

    I just can't see any way around the reality that if they feel offended by an atheist asking them to consider his position--how they can't see that it's the same for the gander...?

  11. I'm just addressing how a theist *could* -- by lacking a little bit of empathy -- feel insulted by an atheist questioning their belief, yet legitimately feel they aren't insulting atheists by questioning the atheist's lack of belief.

    I think it comes back to the faith argument.

    With faith, a theist can think his personal evidence in a god *could* be observed by anyone, but hasn't *yet* been observed by the atheist.

    Of course that Xian thinks he's right, and that the atheist is wrong because she hasn't seen, or she hasn't tried hard enough to see, what he takes to be obvious because of his personal visions or what-have-you.

    So, by assuming the atheist hasn't had a personal experience, he can reason that she thinks he's stupid (see above). He can also not think that she is stupid, but rather lacking his experience. This only becomes hypocritical

    It may also rely on the usually unexamined axiom nowadays that having faith is a good thing, and therefore it's rude to imply that someone's personal faith should be insufficient evidence for belief.

  12. Sorry about the dangling sentence fragment above.

    "...He can also not think that she is stupid, but rather lacking his experience. This only becomes hypocritical," when he learns that she was once a Christian, has really tried to have such an experience, etc., and still argues that she didn't really try, or wasn't really a Christian.


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