I like to comment on web sites that promote some kind of faith-based belief (usually about god but also about any kind of woo accommodationism and/or acceptance) that make intentional misrepresentations. Usually, these misrepresentations are about atheists, science, and history. I feel the authors of these misrepresentations are in need of challenge and critical review. All too often, however, my criticism of any kind (as well as any questioning of the author’s motives to avoid meeting the challenge) is identified as aggressive and hostile and I am quickly banned from any further comment, which is the web site author’s prerogative of course. Being polite is equated with respect only on the condition that one is in agreement with the author, whereas any disagreement is labelled as in need of administrative moderation supposedly for the tone of my comment… usually followed by an opportunity to mend my ways (that is to say, stop being critical) before being banned. But before anyone think this pertains only to the more fringe religious web sites, let me assure you that it crosses all boundaries… from Chris Mooney’s personal fiefdom at Discovery Magazine’s The Intersection to John Shore’s popular blog to Sabio Lantz’s Triangulations. Notice that I will not link to these sites: such censorship of criticism is not my idea of promoting a free exchange of ideas.
This issue of tone and the accusation of hostility the average atheist brings to various forums was brought up on No Apologies Allowed. I commented that many theists bring nothing but their beliefs to the discussion, beliefs that are equivalent to made up stuff, a disregard and disrespect of what’s true, and an attitude that belief is equivalent to knowledge, pointing out that in sum absolutely nothing is being offered to others on the forum. I also explained that this is often seen by others to be nothing more than concern trolling, and so these commentators are treated rather harshly by other commentators. When asked why atheists bother to offer commentary that is “hostile” to faith-based believers, I concluded that religion affecting policies and governance in the public domain was in great need of sustained criticism.
I found the author’s response rather interesting:
Most religions deal with behavior and set standards for it. How can that not help but be related to the public domain? For me, the claims related to Jesus of Nazareth and His teachings form the core of my interactions with people. After all, when He was asked about the greatest commandment (a standard by which we are to judge our behavior), He instructs us to not merely love God in our own personal domain, but to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
I had just reviewed John Polkinghorne’s accommodationist claptrap from Jerry Coyne’s post about a new film (followed later by Eric MacDonald’s usual excellent dismantling of why Polkinhorne’s explanations are so disingenuous) and so I was thinking about this oft-repeated mantra of atheist hostility. I think it worth repeating here how I explain what I think is really going on and why we need to keep criticizing religion in the public domain and reduce its popularity:
Sorry for the length of this comment, but I hope you will find it useful.
This is actually a central topic of concern: the push to impose behavioural rules on everyone under the banner of some people’s favoured religious morality. And under the term ‘behavioural’ falls a host of legal positions under which all will be subjected… like abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, adoption rights, stem cell research, reproductive rights, and so on, all of which have a very profound religious impetus. This raises a very important public concern: are our laws and public policies being formed for good reasons that stand on their own merit? Or are these global positions being formed on the assumption that faith in some divinely sanctioned morality should properly rule all?
To the religious, the authority of personal religious revelation and various scriptures can be very potent in and of themselves and widely considered ‘good’ by the faithful on this basis alone… assuming that god only supports (and reveals) what’s ‘good’ (raising the Epicurus argument) rather than appreciate that this makes god subservient to what’s good (an intolerable ethical consideration to those who believe god is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent). The counter argument is that whatever god does is good in and of itself, so it’s difficult to sit him down and find out exactly what reasons inform his chosen moral position. We must take certain moral positions on faith, many theists insist, and just go with that authority.
To the atheist, this reasoning is not reasoning at all but an intellectual capitulation to the priestly caste to do our thinking for us. And we know that theocracies that do this are the most backwards and unenlightened regimes in the world. Human rights, freedoms, and the legal dignity of personhood afforded to individuals in the west under secular liberal democracies are antithetical to these totalitarian theocracies. So we have a self-interest to make sure the state does not become an arm of any theology if we wish to protect our legal rights and freedoms from any totalitarian authority.
All of the above-mentioned issues have some bearing on the theological/human rights divide. Just seeing this divide is a major impediment when theists by and large assume the two are compatible… yet are compatible only if the separation between state and various religions are respected in law. So when people bring their religious views to a discussion and expect the other to respect faith alone (as a good reason for holding some opinion that involves a moral component taken on faith), we find a conflict of interest immediately: theism practiced through law in the public domain (meaning having effect on public policy and governance) excused on the basis of divine morality is incompatible with a primary respect for an individual’s rights and freedoms.
Each of us really must choose which hierarchy to support: a primary respect for the state to remain secular or a primary respect for some moral faith claim to trump individual rights. Only one can be primary in law. That’s why I say religious belief must remain in the private domain where what I religiously practice does not affect your rights and freedoms, and your religious practices do not effect mine. I think that can work.
The argument I go back to is on what merit does this theistic moral claim trump that contrary theistic moral claim? Said another way, the important questions all of us must answer is 1) Is this claim true, and 2) how do I know? You are well aware that contrary claims made in scripture become arguments of various interpretations and divine intentions. Without a clear answer about which one is correct, however, it seems to me that all theistic claims even if contrary to one another have the same merit: it is simply a matter of faith.
This explains why in just christianity there are over 30,000 sects with many contrary moral claims based on different interpretations offering up many ‘authorities’. Without having any need to go into any of them, faith is obviously no reliable way for us to discover some singular divine moral code or theists would have long ago come to a consensus on what that actually is. When you throw all the world’s religions past and present into the mix, we have no cohesive notion of what any divine moral code might actually be in practice nor any reliable way to find out if any of them are, in fact, true in an honest comparison.
But a moral code based on Enlightenment values is a cohesive set of rules of behaviour, and we see how human society can flourish when we keep the state out of the business of promoting any one particular religious moral code; instead, we promote a fully secular legal system based on everyone’s shared individual rights and shared freedoms and we allow people to have faith in whatever set of beliefs about god rocks their world… as long as it doesn’t reduce or effect the rights of anyone else.
As soon as someone understands that the religious views about abortion or gay marriage and so on really does impose one’s own moral preference over and above another the moral preference of another by curtailing their individual rights and freedoms, then we have made progress. In this sense, these fundamental disagreements between theists and non theists can be better understood to be about maintaining and protecting shared rights rather than one over accepting or rejecting god. This issue if not us/them battle between faitheists and anti-faithiests; it’s a battle over a shared or favoured public domain.
The hostility/aggressiveness the theist hears from the non theist is spoken in the tone of defending our mutual rights and freedoms with passion. The aplogetics the non theist hears from the theist is spoken in the tone of honour and respect for god. The middle ground that I think will eventually be found acceptable to all rests with theists believing what they wish for themselves and rendering all issues secular to Caesar’s public domain.