Thursday, March 12, 2009

Watch Your Tone!

I'm in danger of becoming all religion all the time this week, but I want to drop another post on the topic.

I had an interesting exchange with a friend today about the tone (among other things) of my criticisms of faith here. She feels that my tone is too harsh in addressing difficult issues like faith. Naturally I disagree.

I've come across this issue before, and I think the last thing we need in the debate over faith vs. atheism is more deference to faith. (Here's an interesting discussion of this issue.)

I don't understand why opinions about the existence of god should be treated with any more respect than opinions about - say - politics. We regularly see public exchanges about political ideals that border on fist fights, and while you occasionally hear about changing the "tone in Washington", I've never heard anyone say that one side or the other of the political spectrum is entitled to deference and respect just because.

Yet I hear that argument all the time when it comes to "faith." Why is that? What is it about believing in god that entitles the believer to more respect or deference than any other opinion? It makes very little sense. If the believer can back up his beliefs, and wants to engage in a debate about it, he should welcome my challenge even if it comes in strong terms.

The "watch your tone" argument is particularly annoying in light of the tone that so many believers take with atheists. I'm not suggesting they should tone down their rhetoric, I can take it, but when a former president of the US has said atheists shouldn't be considered citizens; and when states still have laws on the books (although unenforceable) keeping atheists from holding office, maybe believers should take as good as they give.

Hey - I'm not really that harsh anyway. Now George knew how to be harsh.


  1. I agree with your friend. But, I also think the tone you take about politics is too harsh sometimes. And I LIKE talking politics and religion with you. I think most people stop listening,or reading in this case, when the "tone" of the conversation gets too abrasive. You stop being able to get your point across because people just tune it out, or stop reading.Do you really want to become the liberal version of Ann Coulter? Rush Limbaugh? Even though they have huge audiences, I doubt their audiences would be considered rational or intelligent. There are other ways to say the same things.

  2. (I'll apologize in advance for the length. I went on a bit of a rant.)

    In some ways, I think this depends on the specific context of a given debate/argument/conversation/situation. If the point is to persuade, then an adversarial tone is probably not warranted (obviously, this depends on your audience). By contrast, an abrasive tone may be completely appropriate if the point is verbally force the other side into an admission that your argument is stronger or that they cannot respond to it without using completely subjective forms of evidence. An abrasive tone may even be appropriate if you are simple trying to make a point. However, thinking that someone's belief is irrational is not the same as a lack of respect for that person. For example, I think my father's belief in a god is irrational, but I still respect him.

    As far as I'm concerned, people are free to believe or not believe whatever they want. But as soon they start trying to create a legal or political framework that would actively advance their beliefs to the detriment of others, I will actively fight back. Why? Because it assumes that everyone who does not agree with their religious views should be forced to act as if they do. This type of coercive behavior is only a step away from creating thought police. How long until I'm forced to attend religious services, take part in rituals or wear certain clothing that appeases their god?

    If you think my argument relies on an unrealistic reasoning about the slippery slope, then consider an example from last November. The American Humanist Association ran an ad campaign on D.C. buses in which signs that showed a person in a Santa Claus suit and had the following written message, "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake." In response the leader of the Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal group, said, "It's the ultimate grinch to say there is no God at a time when millions of people around the world celebrate the birth of Christ. Certainly, they have the right to believe what they want but this is insulting." (The quotes are from a FOX News--which I normally hate, but I'll still use to further my point here--report, which also has a picture of the ad:,2933,450445,00.html) There was also this reaction by a man in Thonotosassa, Florida, as reported by the Northeast News & Tribune (Tampa)(link:

    "We were sitting around our prayer table talking about it and we said 'Why don't we do something about it,'" said Alan Nelson, Dallas 1's technology specialist. "Christians for so long have gotten run over and we just kind of wanted to convey the truth."

    These reactions make no sense to me. Christians have been "[getting] run over" in the United States? I see billboards and ads for churches and about god all the time. I hear politicians talking about god and proclaiming their Christian beliefs in nationally televised speeches. How does one atheist advertising campaign provoke this much outrage? Sounds like some Christians are insecure about how their beliefs will stand up to rational thought. As far as I can tell, the AHA ad was not some guns-blazing assault on Christianity using incendiary or offensive language. Yet many Christians acted as if this was some sort of personal affront. (Before someone accuses me of cherry-picking examples, do some research about this yourself. I left out plenty of blog entries, comments and message board posts that used language bordering on violent. Also, as a disclaimer, I realize that not all Christians are like this.)

    My point is simply an echo of Bill's, but with an emphasis on the hypocrisy that arises when Christians (or any other theists) apply a double standard that labels criticism of religion as insulting without applying the label to criticism of atheism. This hypocrisy is not limited to those who actively advocate for things like a ban on gay marriage. It includes the people who think things like: "gay people should only get civil unions," or who think that it's OK to put up a display of the nativity scene on government property just because most people are Christian in the US and it's not hurting anyone, but an atheist plaque shouldn't be allowed next to it because that would be offensive. You can still be a hypocrite even if you're just complacent because, based on religious faith (or a lack thereof), you want to enjoy certain privileges that you think others should be denied. This includes applying a double standard that says an atheist's critique of religion is offensive or insulting but a theists critique of atheism is not.

  3. As someone who de-converted from Christianity to atheism based largely on my attempts to defend my faith against people who spoke mockingly about it, I for one will never underestimate the power of mockery to change minds.

    Mockery made me angry to do the research to defend my faith, and that research showed me that the mockers were RIGHT.

  4. No, there should be nothing holding us back from ANY dialog/discussion on, or about, religion or faith etc. Why should there? People act like it is a topic to be protected! Why? Are they fearful of falling numbers in their ranks? Because, let's face it, that is what they like to do...enlarge their numbers at services and kids groups so that they can go out and spread the word etc.

    I like your tone and as a first time visitor I can say that I will be back for more!