Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Responses from Flemming and Lazarus

Both Brian Flemming and James Lazarus have linked to the post I made a week ago on the Blasphemy Challenge, The Importance of Being Rude.

To Brian: Thanks for the link. You make lots of good points, though on the Fox News interview, I still think you could have done a better job of correcting distortions of the challenge.

To Laz: Thanks for the response. When I first read it, I thought I'd have to do some careful thinking on how to response. Unfortunately, I then read it a second time and realized you had proven my point.

Let's recap. I was defending rudeness not as an end unto itself, but as a way to jolt people out of their prejudices:
Simply put, many people find the mere existence of atheists offensive. Heck, some are at a loss to understand how anyone could doubt their particular sectarian dogmas. Once, when I was out with my "Smile! There is no hell" sign, I had a girl come up to me and look at me with sad puppy dog eyes and ask why I didn't believe in hell. From the look on her face, it was beyond her than anyone could doubt this dogma.
Now look at one of the things Laz holds up as a paradigm example of unacceptably rude activism: a t-shirt that says, "The Bible is FALSE!" Think about what you're saying here. If you saw a t-shirt "The Bible is TRUE!" (or some catchier equivalent), would you say to your self, "Oh, there goes another Christian being offensive"? I doubt it. This looks like clear evidence that for a large segment of our society, what counts as a normal expression of an opinion for a believer counts as an offensive statement for an atheist. Worse, it looks like even atheists can fall into this trap at times, even an atheist who claims to support being "direct and assertive."

Why this would be the case is an interesting question. Part of the problem is what John Loftus was getting at with the outsider test: the majority religious position is granted a sort of credibility just by virtue of being in the majority. I have even fallen victim to this. I once read a post by PZ Myers complaining about something James Dobson had said, and included a remark, "Do people realize how weird this sounds to some of us? What if someone said the same thing about Ganesh?" Though I was an atheist at the time, I didn't find Dobson's remark weird, even though I would've had it been coming from a Hindu talking about Ganesh.

The other part of the problem is that modern pluralists have a tendency to pretend, and insist others pretend, that religions don't disagree with eachother. Thus, you can say what you believe, even if it implicitly contradicts other people's beliefs, but explicitly contradict them--well, that's just rude! That's a time of playing pretend that atheists cannot engage in, because atheism is defined in terms of rejecting certain beliefs. People may dislike it, but we don't have much of a choice.

In the comments, Lazarus aimed another criticism at the Blasphemy Challenge: "the content has been mostly shallow contributions - rhetoric and one-liner arguments, followed by cocksure comments about the falsity of alternative worldviews [emphasis added]." Why, pray tell, should we never use one-liner arguments? It seems to me that we need to be ready to present a range of arguments for a range of comments. If someone's willing to read an entire book defending atheism, wonderful, definitely good to have ready for people who'll read them, but not everyone will be willing--especially people who find the mere existence of atheists offensive. So if the most we can get a person to read is a magazine article, well, we need to have magazine articles for them. If the most we can get a person to read is a pamphlet, well, we need to have pamplets for them. And if the most we can get a person to read is a sign, bumper sticker, or a one-minute video on YouTube, well, we need to have that ready too. There clearly are good, short, arguments along these lines: "I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

Will short arguments be as effective as arguments sketched in detail? No. However, if we do nothing but write long treatises in defense of atheism, many people will never hear anything ever said in defense of atheism.

Let me give a concrete example: just two days ago, one of the student papers ran an article critical of the legal activities of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I decided to write a letter to the editor in response. Problem: there was a 250 word limit on such letters. So I crammed everything I had to say into those 250 words, just barely fitting it all in. I couldn't devote more than a sentence to some points I made. The result was obviously something not as persuasive as a 1500 word essay on the importance of separation of church and state in Freethought Today would have been. Did that make it a bad idea to write the letter? No! Most of the people who read the student papers will never pick up an issue of Freethought Today. They will be reached to the extent that it is possible to reach them. That's a good thing.

Granted, there are some times where short arguments will be not merely less effective, but totally ineffective. However, this is multiply irrelevant to the question at hand: I've seen no reason to think the Blasphemy Challenge involves such a situation, and we're not talking about offensiveness but merely effectiveness.


Jim Lazarus said...


I haven't read this entire post yet, but I just wanted to point out that I was writing that I *approve* of t-shirts like that. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. What I'm against is an entire activist platform based on nothing but ridicule - I don't think that gets us anywhere as a community. But if someone wants to have some individual entertainment, or to provoke people at the Mall, I don't see any reason to complain about that. But I think there's a big difference when we start a whole national activist campaign based on this sort of thing, for the reasons I gave in my post and subsequent comments.

Jim Lazarus said...

Okay, now I have read the whole thing. On your second point about one-liner arguments, you're right that there are succinct arguments that can be effective. However, what I see when it comes to RRS-inspired skepticism is mainly: "I don't believe in Santa Claus, so just like that, I'm also an atheist!" - which is hardly effective material, and even Jeff Lowder made his post about dumb "atheologians" who use poor arguments like this one.

To be fair, there have been quite a few videos that I've seen that didn't fall prey to that sort of thing, but my criticisms went far beyond my complaint about one-liner arguments.

At the same time, there are a number of videos that I think were very well done (some done by intelligent adults, and some done by very creative kids). I have nothing but praise for these videos, but I think it's unfortunate that they were made under the umbrella of the Blasphemy Challenge and RRS-inspired "activism".

The core of my complaint is essentially the attitude that this sort of activism bases itself on and promotes. It's a condescension that many believers don't deserve, and it only serves to reinforce negative stereotypes about us in the public eye (I've repeated this point so many times today I can really relate to the old 'He's like a broken record' phrase).

I think the point I made about Martin Luther King, Jr. was a good one. Loftus brought it up. I made the point that, just like the Civil Rights Movement, our core messages will be insulting: atheists exist, we don't believe in God, we don't think it's sensible to believe in something like that. People will be offended by it, but that doesn't matter. But ask yourself: What if Martin Luther King, Jr. got up on the podium to give his speech, and instead of delivering the famous "I Have a Dream", he delivered a speech titled, "All Crackers Belong in Mental Institutions". The former speech would inevitably offend his critics. The latter one is a different type of "offensive", though. It's unnecessarily insulting, juvenile, and dumb. That's what I see coming from RRS-inspired "activism". That's why I don't support it.

I think there are better ways, even if these alternatives are not as attractive to national media outlets. I don't think we should measure success in that way. I think we should measure it by how many people's lives we can enrich by bringing them to become aware and appreciative of those who hold to different core beliefs than them, and get them to reconsider their own. That will never be media attention-grabbing, but I think it's so much more important than just getting on Fox News or participating in juvenile publicity stunts.

- Jim

Jim Lazarus said...

heh - I don't want to flood your combox, but I linked to this, and added a few more comments:

severalspeciesof said...

If I may be so bold with this "one-liner"... No offense meant, no offense taken.

Both you and Jim make some very good points. And I'm sitting on the fence regarding whether the challenge is a good thing or not, but I'm facing toward Jim, since I believe the whole challenge thing was/is meant to be an offense.

So, if offense was meant, offense is taken.