Questionable Motives

March 29, 2010

Is the tone of religious criticism important?

Richard Dawkins has written a short article answering the question, “Should the pope resign?”

As an atheist, Dawkins is often vilified as too strident, too aggressive, too unqualified about sophisticated theology to speak to the nuances of religious belief. His tone, in other words, is all wrong to be effective, we hear from so many ‘I’m an atheist, but…’ apologists.  Clearly, Dawkins has no respect for beliefs that are not concerned with what is true, and that central tenet of Dawkins’ philosophy must be kept in mind if one is to appreciate what the man brings to the discussion table regarding religious belief and its effects in the world. You may not appreciate the messenger, but the message is clear and truthful.

So when he Dawkins is asked to give his opinion, religious moderates and apologetic atheists need to gird their loins for what is to follow because they are about to hear the truth without the sugarcoating niceties so favoured by the apologetic faint of heart set.

“Should the pope resign?”

No. As the College of Cardinals must have recognized when they elected him, he is perfectly – ideally – qualified to lead the Roman Catholic Church. A leering old villain in a frock, who spent decades conspiring behind closed doors for the position he now holds; a man who believes he is infallible and acts the part; a man whose preaching of scientific falsehood is responsible for the deaths of countless AIDS victims in Africa; a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence: in short, exactly the right man for the job. He should not resign, moreover, because he is perfectly positioned to accelerate the downfall of the evil, corrupt organization whose character he fits like a glove, and of which he is the absolute and historically appropriate monarch.

No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice – the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution – while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.

The tone? Short, to the point, in your face, here’s the truth, now deal with it, kind of tone.

Shocking? So what? Is it true?

Now let’s look at what criticizing the tone really means.

Greta Christina has written a lovely response to those people who troll their concern about this very issue: tone.

Dear Believer:

Thank you for your concern about the well-being of the atheist movement, and for your advice on how to run it. I appreciate your concern for the image of the atheist movement, and I appreciate you taking the time to give us advice on how to get our message across more effectively.

In particular, I have received your observation that attempts to persuade people out of their religious beliefs are often seen as rude or offensive — along with your suggestion that we therefore should stop making our case altogether. I have also received your suggestion that, if we do feel it necessary to point out the flaws in religion, we do so gently and diplomatically, making the avoidance of any possible offense or hurt feelings our absolute top priority. I have received your observation that attempts to persuade people out of religious beliefs can be divisive, possibly alienating the progressive ecumenical religious community — and I have received your suggestion that we should therefore concentrate entirely on anti-discrimination and separation of church and state issues that we have in common with progressive believers, and abandon any focus on pointing out the flaws in religion or the harm done by it. And I have received your suggestion that we avoid any use of anger, humor, mockery, passion, and other traditional methods of drawing attention to controversial ideas, and that in the future we make our case soberly, moderately, and with little fanfare. These suggestions are certainly interesting, and I will give them all due consideration.

However, while your concern for the well-being of the atheist movement is certainly appreciated, I can assure you that it is unwarranted. rates of religious non-belief are going up at a substantial rate — a rate that even surprises many of us — all over the United States and all over the world. This trend is especially true among young people… arguably the most important demographic for any social change movement. What’s more, I personally have been told by several people that they left their religion and became atheists, in part, because of things I’ve written. And I know that I left my own religious beliefs, in large part, because of things that were written by people in the atheist movement. Clearly, we are doing something right.

It is difficult to avoid the observation that, whenever believers give advice to atheists on how to run our movement, it is always in the direction of telling us to be more quiet, to tone it down, to be less confrontational and less visible. I have yet to see a believer advise the atheist movement to speak up more loudly and more passionately; to make our arguments more compelling and more unanswerable; to get in people’s faces more about delicate and thorny issues that they don’t want to think about; to not be afraid of offending people if we think we’re right. I have received a great deal of advice from believers on how atheists should run our movement… and it is always, always, always in the direction of politely suggesting that we shut up.

You’ll have to forgive me if I think your suggestions on making our movement more effective would, in fact, have the exact opposite effect. What’s more, you’ll have to forgive me for suspecting that this, however unconsciously, is the true intention behind your very kind and no doubt sincerely- meant advice.

And you’ll have to forgive me if I am less than enthusiastic about taking advice on how to run the atheist movement from the very people our movement is trying to change.

And that’s the key point: the New Atheist movement recognizes the global danger unjustified religious beliefs that is organized and political brings to the world and is trying to do something about it not by violence or imposition but by discourse. The various styles and tones by which this is done are not the issue and never shall be; the issue is whether or not religious belief is justified to have say about anything. If we are concerned about what’s true, then we need to be very concerned with popular beliefs that are not.

And at the top of that list is religion. It is the criticism of unjustified beliefs that is important if one thinks that what’s true actually matters more the tone by which it occurs. Those whose opinions are more concerned with tone than what’s true are simply an impediment to meaningful discourse.

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