Questionable Motives

October 17, 2011

Why do we need to keep criticizing faith-based beliefs in the public domain?

Filed under: Gnu Atheism,private domain,public domain,Religion — tildeb @ 10:56 am

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.


  1. Hey!

    So far, I think this is my favorite post of yours. I don’t want to say much other than these few things:

    1) Hostility doesn’t really bother me personally. Heck, I’m not even phased by profanity or potty humor (I used to be a huge Zappa fan, until the message of the gospel enlightened me to something more substantive to devote my life to other than collecting his tremendous output of music and memorizing all his lyrics and guitar riffs).
    2) Niceness is not one of my personal requirement for interaction. I’m not expecting people to play nicey-nice and hold back their feelings or convictions.

    The satire I incorporated into the comic was to point out how conversations, at times (not all the time), on atheist message boards get aborted. They get killed before they even get a chance to live. In the fictional example I used, the non-theist automatically assumed the theist was : 1) not genuinely interested in having their worldview challenged; 2) only there to make converts; 3) dumb; 4) sick; 5) twisted. How can someone get all of that out of one or two messages?

    By the way, let’s take the example of Jesus’ teaching that you quoted, “Love your neighbor as yourself” He taught; Jesus requiring that belief is not merely a matter of personal behavior, but it spills into the public sphere, too, including both what you do and what you don’t do. It’s here that He gave the famous parable of the good Samaritan. If you were the guy beat and left to die on the side of the road, would you want the Samaritan to force his beliefs on you (that is, he believes your life has value and is worth saving)? Or would you prefer that you be left to die?

    And, if you wouldn’t mind, can you define the breadth of “public domain” and “private domain”? Is it the number of people that designate each? Is it location? Who drew the lines? Who defined them?

    On another note, what about when the government writes and enforces laws that infringe on the moral standard of a religious group? For example, the government says that churches must hire homosexuals. Would that be right or wrong in your estimation?

    Appreciate the post, man!

    Comment by "No Apologies Allowed" Weekly Apologetics Cartoons — October 17, 2011 @ 11:37 pm | Reply

    • Hey, NAA, thanks for dropping by and commenting.

      It is my experience that atheists usually are very knowledgeable about religious matters and quite familiar with the standard set of apologetics for maintaining these supernatural beliefs. Very often a theist shows up and makes a very simplistic comment as if talking to people who are religiously ignorant, not realizing that the same religious point has been successfully dismantled probably dozens if not hundreds of times already and shown to be wanting. The presumption of religious ignorance on the part of non believers is rather insulting right off the bat and hardly a good way to start a respectful conversation. In particular, there is often no opportunity for ‘conversation’ to occur on many forums when the theist a priori rejects an entire and substantive field of knowledge that is the very source for the forum discussion underway – evolutionary biology in the case of – and offers up instead a supposedly correct answer – goddidit. That is not a meaningful contribution on such a forum but a conversation killer in that it presumes some belief in Oogity Boogity ought to be taken seriously and accorded respect without cause.

      For example, you presume that the fable of the Good Samaritan informs the moral underpinnings of reciprocity, as if this is a necessary understanding to speak about the role of belief in Jesus to overcome some presumed human nature to do nothing, to allow suffering, to not get involved, to continue down the road and ignore the need of others. Even a quick glance into research shows this kind of reciprocity and concern for the suffering of others not only precedes any religious belief but is evident in the behaviour of other mammals. Belief in Jesus or some other form of belief in the supernatural, in other words, has absolutely nothing to do with why some of us respond to the suffering of others and intervene while some of us do not. What is clear, however, is that such beliefs about the root source of what can be described as moral imperatives do not aid us in an honest inquiry into the causes of such human behaviour from which you are quite willing to draw certain moral conclusions favourable to your beliefs. In other words, it is not ‘belief’ in the form of aid that is being ‘imposed’ on a suffering individual but a biological response to external stimuli. No belief in Oogity Boogity is necessary to inquire into its causes nor can any ownership of compassionate action be attributed to this belief if we really want to know what’s going on. Religious belief that presumes an answer favourable to itself interferes with an honest inquiry into reciprocity.

      The public domain is a property right term meaning that which is no longer covered by copyright law but available to all. I use the term to contrast that which can be privately owned (and exercised) to that which belongs to all of us. Specifically, I use the term to mean the business of various institutions and governments and public policies that all of us ‘own’. When anyone attempts to utilize public institutions, public government, public policies owned by all (or none) to implement favouritism for some over others, then we have a problem for everyone. In the case of religion, when the faithful attempt to utilize public institutions like the law, education, medicine, to favour a set of preferred beliefs, to elect people sympathetic to changing the use of public offices to grant political power to people who favour a set of preferred beliefs, to use government to implement policies that favour some set of preferred beliefs, then we have a very real problem regardless of the specifics: we have an intentional infringement upon the appropriate use of the public domain. We have what is owned by all (or none) being inappropriately used to favour some at the expense of others. This is a constant battle involving all kinds of interests whose supporters attempt to co-opt the public power of the secular state to favour a private domain (ownership) issue.

      Government’s role in your example of enforcing laws that infringe on the moral standard of a religious group can then be seen to be enforcing a law to which ALL citizens are subject regardless of group membership. That a group of people decide to agree to some standard they consider moral that requests an exemption from a common law is a pretty clear indication of where the problem lies: the group wishes to maintain an unequal standard. One must wonder why. What are the reasons for this exemption? Do these reasons provide a means to enhance the public good or the private? In your example of hiring homosexuals, what we’re really talking about is a special exemption from equity laws to maintain a hiring discrimination on the basis of a sexual orientation. Do you really think this is a good idea? Turn it around for a moment: Do you think religious groups should be able to be exempted from whatever laws they choose, that they find inconvenient to their beliefs, be able to practice whatever bigotry and misogyny they classify as morally acceptable to their religious beliefs (female genital mutilation anyone?)? Or should religious groups be subject to the same public laws as everyone else? Let’s change it from religious groups: if religious groups can be exempted, then what about businesses who decide to hold a different moral standard for their practices? What about municipalities? Neighbourhoods? The north side of the street or the south? Even addresses or odd? Who gets exemptions and on what reasons, what moral standards? The real question is how is the public good enhanced by allowing religious groups to be exempted from common law in order to continue to discriminate on a basis not allowed by various bills of rights and charters of freedoms?

      As I’m sure you can guess, I happen to favour respecting our collective rights and freedoms over and above respecting the religious beliefs of others. More religious people need to make this stark choice as well so that we are perfectly clear who supports equality in the public domain and who wishes to make it subservient to their private concerns.

      Comment by tildeb — October 18, 2011 @ 9:10 am | Reply

  2. In the fictional example I used, the non-theist automatically assumed the theist was : 1) not genuinely interested in having their worldview challenged; 2) only there to make converts; 3) dumb; 4) sick; 5) twisted. How can someone get all of that out of one or two messages?

    Ah, where to begin?

    In the fictional example I used…

    The key word here is “fictional”. There are zillions of online forums out there discussing religion.
    Plenty of them are short and brutal.
    Yet you chose to create a fictional one.

    …the non-theist automatically assumed…

    Automatically assuming something in an online conversation can be a serious mistake.

    …assumed the theist was : 1) not genuinely interested in having their worldview challenged

    Not an unreasonable assumption. Examples abound.

    …2) only there to make converts…

    Again, not an unreasonable assumption. Religious people do have this habit of trying to “convert the heathen”. It’s like they are trying to win brownie points to get into heaven. They even will stop strangers in the street or knock on people’s doors in their local neighbourhood.

    …3) dumb…

    Well, there are plenty of genuinely dumb religious people on the internet. Dumber than a bag of hammers. Lots and lots of them. They are not balanced out by the smart ones.

    …4) sick; 5) twisted…

    It’s the internet. Sick and twisted people flock to the internet. It’s wrong to automatically make that assumption but…

    How can someone get all of that out of one or two messages?

    Oh, let me count the ways: Type in Allcaps? An obsessive desire to mindlessly reel off verses from the bible? Use the phrase “only a theory”? Shift the burden of proof? Talk about magic, invisible sky daddies and then expect to be taken seriously?
    One or two messages is often more than enough.

    Crazy Caller #15 – Your Brain On Religion (The Atheist Experience 545)

    Comment by Cedric Katesby — October 20, 2011 @ 1:36 am | Reply

  3. …3) dumb; 4) sick; 5) twisted. How can someone get all of that out of one or two messages?…

    Oddly enough, real-life examples fresh off the vine are all too easy to find. Fictional strawman versions are not needed.

    Comment by Cedric Katesby — October 20, 2011 @ 5:49 am | Reply

  4. Happy rapture day everyone… :o)

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 22, 2011 @ 5:12 am | Reply

    • Thanks, MUR!

      But before anyone thinks we came through it unscathed, consider that the world did end, everyone died except the Chosen (Harold Camping wasn’t one of them), the clocks were reset and a bunch of problems were re-instituted and we’ve actually started anew… but improved! That we can’t detect this important difference now doesn’t mean it didn’t happen then! And another miracle avoids detection.

      Comment by tildeb — October 22, 2011 @ 9:15 pm | Reply

  5. I was Raptured.

    (…awkward silence…)

    But I got better.

    Comment by Cedric Katesby — October 23, 2011 @ 5:19 am | Reply

  6. At the same time Secular teachings do not preclude Theists from exercising their fullest rights in advocating their claims.

    Comment by Panama corporation — October 26, 2011 @ 2:03 am | Reply

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