Friday, 14 September 2012

Which is more respectful, honest criticism or a pacifying lie?

Last night I got pulled into a fight about religion and atheism with someone I care for very deeply, and who cares for me. Much was said that probably should not have been, and both of us were guilty of letting anger dictate our handling of the discussion. The main source of the disagreement was my - totally acknowledged - lack of respect for religious beliefs, which I consider no less foolish (and far more dangerous) than belief in astrology, ghosts or the Evil Eye.

The person I argued with is not devoutly religious, but has never entirely shaken off their rather puritan christian upbringing. They've known for many years now that I'm an atheist, but until yesterday our conversations on the subject had been limited to the occasional reproachful remark when I was too openly disdainful of religion in their presence.

The argument was not even about christianity in particular - I actually suspect this person knows specific religions are intellectually indefensible - but about my lack of respect for what people of all religions sincerely believe; this person is concerned for my safety, believing I may be at risk of drawing real-world ire from certain religious factions I have written about, both here and in other places. This person is liberal in most ways and certainly doesn't take their morals from any holy book; I can discuss almost anything with this person calmly and rationally, even if we disagree completely... but when it comes to religion, alone among all other human sillinesses, this person just wants me to shut up.  It became so strange I can only express it by quoting the brilliant and ever-eloquent Douglas Adams: "Here is an idea or a notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? Because you're not!".

I'm always wary, in the aftermath of an argument in which feelings have been hurt, of the risk of digging in deeper to one's original position to avoid having to think that maybe the criticism was warranted - of rationalising what one said or did after the fact. I don't think I'm guilty of that in this instance, but if you think I am do feel free to tell me so in the comments; the fact is that I'm NOT totally certain how objective I'm being here:

I sincerely don't think the way to show a person respect is to fake respect for their foolish beliefs.  The person with whom I had the argument last night is exceptionally intelligent, and far more educated than I am; for me to decide for them that they couldn't handle what I had to say about one of their beliefs would be breathtakingly condescending, unspeakably arrogant.

Of course, not everybody in the world is comparable in intelligence to my interlocutor from last night (in fact, statistically the vast majority are not), but when did one's right to hear an honest opinion depend on one's intelligence anyway? Where's the cut-off, do we consider you incapable of coping with facts and our honest opinions if your IQ tests at - say - 120 or less?  What about educational level, how many GCSEs and A Levels do you need, which Universities qualify you for honest feedback on your beliefs?

Something I occasionally find irritating about atheists - open ones, I mean - is our tendency (some of us are more guilty of this than others, of course) to consider ourselves more intelligent than believers. Yes, there are a few studies that support this in a very minor way, but even of these the most marked average difference I've ever seen reported is ten or so IQ points. When you're dealing with a species of which some members have IQs of 20 and others have more than ten times that - and when you're dealing with a system of measurement which is itself acknowledged to be an imperfect measure of intelligence - such a minor trend is all but meaningless.  I am an atheist and I score relatively highly on IQ tests - but that does not leave me safe to assume I am more intelligent than any religious believer I encounter, because the statistics simply don't support that.  We'd probably be marginally safer guessing that we're more educated than believers - there is at least a relatively objective measure for that - but again the existence of renowned scientists who're also religious, and of people like my conversant last night, show that we'd be very, very foolish to make any assumptions of that kind.

Here's the heart of the problem for me; I simply do not, cannot, see anything in religious beliefs deserving of anybody's respect.  When a person tells me that I "ought" to show respect for those beliefs, I am put in an impossible position; I can either be honest and disrespect the beliefs, or I can lie and disrespect the person.  When the person in question is someone I already respect deeply, this is troublesome and upsetting - and leads to what happened last night.

This is the first time in my experience that what I say about religion has led to serious disagreement with someone I love - or at least, the first time it's become genuinely acrimonious. Has anything like this happened to anyone else? How do/did you handle it? Is my position on respect reasonable, or am I rationalising? Can relationships be repaired after something like this?  I'd love to have input from other non-believers because this has hurt me considerably, in a way no amount of ranting from religious people (or other atheists, I suppose) over the internet ever has.


  1. I can sympathise. I recently fell out with a long term friend of about 20 years who was 'born again' around 12 years ago. We had somehow managed to avoid the subject of religion for that last 12 years but apparently some of the atheist writings that appeared on my facebook newsfeed became too much for him and he has unfriended me. I emailed him to find out what had caused this, he replied that the disrespect for his beliefs had just become too much and had continually enraged him whenever he saw them. I have wondered why he simply did not block my feed but clearly it went a bit deeper than that.

    So I find myself in much the same position as you Lucy. Either I keep my opinions to myself or I lose a friend. This I think is what is really meant by religious intolerance :-)

    Are you being unreasonable? You know you're not and neither am I. We are entitled to our opinion of the world just as much as our sensitive friends are. The big problem is that they don't think that we are. I wonder if the anger is just a reaction at having a belief challenged when they know - at some deep level - it's illogical and ridiculous. I have always believed that the ancient lizard brain is in a constant battle with the modern evolved brain and this process creates the cognitive dissonance required for people who understand and believe in science to reject evolution and believe in omnipotent superbeings that they can't see or sense in any way.

    I have held out a tentative olive branch to my friend. I think we'll be ok in the end. I hope it goes ok for you too ;-)


    1. Thanks James, that helps enormously - I'm glad to hear things are looking hopeful for your relationship with your friend. And I think you're absolutely right about primitive versus modern brain (neuroscientists please don't hammer for me that, I mean it more-or-less metaphorically)!

      The bit I can't get my head around about my argument with this particular person is that it doesn't even seem to be my challenge to THEIR beliefs that they consider the problem - it's like they think they've got to protect other people from me. I hope we'll be back on good terms soon - I know this person loves me and I love them, so it'll be OK. Just makes it more unpleasant in the meantime!

      Thanks James. xxx

  2. I don't consider myself more intelligent, I just cannot comprehend why they can't, or more likely won't, see past the absurdity of religion. A very good friend of mine won't even allow me to discuss religious subjects, it's as if she fears seeing through the lie she has been living all those years, and the admission that she might have been so very wrong for so very long.

    Otherwise sane rational people can suspend belief for any one of a number of reasons, and for many being part of an established religion is comforting, being part of it, being one of the team, and that's exactly what religions work on, inclusiveness!

    I worked in South Sudan for a year, in the town where I worked was a Catholic mission, the locals sucked into this religion were made to feel part of the gang, and it saddened me to see them being used to swell the numbers of adherents to this church in order to compensate for losses in the western world where people are turning away from religion.

    As one infamous Ewetoober puts it; "The internet, where religions come to die" The simple reason is that mass communication has exposed religions falsehood, and many of its misdemeanour's, causing people to think beyond the indoctrination of their childhood.

    Can your damaged relationship be repaired, yes of course it can, time is a great healer, just avoid further debate on the subject for the foreseeable future, that's if you place a higher value on the relationship than your anti-religious fervour!

  3. Smegger and Pete, I agree that fear is part of the issue. I think at a deeper lever, they do know that their belief is illogical and ridiculous, that's why they do not want to think/question/discuss too much. It's like there is a door they keep closed, and they're afraid to open it. I used to be married to a Catholic (I know, I was young.) and I could not discuss anything about religion with him without him appearing angry and defensive. Often he would just leave the room. I had a distinct feeling he was afraid that if he did discuss things with me, he would begin to see the absurdity of his belief. It was very sad to see.

    Lucy, you've touched on something that is quite common I think. Atheists often have friends who are religious, and yet have avoided talking about religion for a long time. I have friends who are religious, and who will attribute everything that happens to them to god ("God helped me find that restaurant"!). Aside from a few sarcastic replies, I have rarely challenged them because I know that if I do, I would in some way ruin the friendship. But increasingly I am find it hard to bite my tongue. So perhaps I should speak out?

  4. While irrational beliefs are unchallenged the ability of the religious to use the offended card remains. It may be painful to start questioning beliefs but hopefully when it becomes normal for such discussion both the religious will not feel so offended and more reasonable debate can occur.

  5. Your friend's allegedly well-meaning message boils down to "Stop saying unpopular things, because you might get attacked in response." Well, if you were an ambassador in Libya that would be a concern... but the people you mingle with in your everyday life are, well, people like your friend. Are you really in danger of violent attack from such people?

    So really, your friend was saying "Stop saying things _I_ don't like, because _I_ don't wanna hear it. But this way I can dress it up as concern for your safety."

  6. Lucy, I have probably misinterpreted what you wrote - and forgive me if this is way off the mark - but it sounds to me that any offence your friend has taken comes a distant second to their being simply concerned for your safety. In this respect I disagree with the previous comment.

    "The argument was [...] about my lack of respect for what people of all religions sincerely believe".

    At a guess, this impersonal, generalised "lack of respect" would be unlikely to deeply wound your friend. So, could they be more upset by the potential consequences of your ornery "public face" than anything personal you may have directed at them?

    A person who has recently witnessed a sickening reaction to "blasphemy", say, could easily want someone they love to "shut up" in public, even if they are willing to discuss the issue in private.

    Sorry my intention is not to scare! I'm sure you aren't in the slightest danger, but I'm not sure I could be so rational if you were a dear friend.

    Reading between the lines it is obvious they care profoundly for you. So, do not worry about healing the wounds as this is a relationship that is, if anything, growing stronger. To hazard a guess, what we have here is not a terminal rift, but a reasonably trivial (at least in hindsight) failure to communicate. You'll be fine. Friendships have withstood far worse than this. Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.

    So far, nothing like this has happened to me. I too have a handful of religious friends, and my rule is never to question their private belief in conversation (though of course I find it baffling, frustrating and plain silly) unless invited, but always to question it fiercely if that belief is imposed on others, especially children, for that is where the rot starts. This is a cowardly position but it does make for smoother relationships.

    However in the public arena Twitter/Facebook/blogs etc. I feel much more comfortable openly questioning anything as I feel it is not then directed personally at someone I love.

    I think your position is entirely reasonable (and in a discussion between equals, respectful) although I would ask what leads you to question your friend's beliefs? They know you are an atheist, therefore will know you find their position untenable, so why keep pushing that rock up hill? What do you hope to gain from it? Faith, by its very nature, makes it almost impossible to bring people round on any rational basis, so sometimes I find it best to just let go. That said, I am heartened there are braver people like you who are willing to speak up against irrationality even when it leads to a painful dilemma. Sorry if my pitiful waffling has overstepped the mark. Best wishes, Fran.

  7. I honestly can't think of a way to refrain from engaging with a particular erroneous point without it coming across as patronising. "Well, I know that religion is wrong - ooh, but this person needs it. I should really just not critique it." I think it's actually far more condescending and far more coddling to ringfence one person's wrong ideas from criticism and not another's.

    That's a matter of personal consistency too. I've seen atheist skeptics tackle things like alternative medicine, conspiracy theories etc in a very thorough and occasionally blunt fashion, sometimes with people they know - and sometimes people's identities can get tangled up in those as much as they can in a religion. But when it comes to religion - all the belief-in-belief rhetoric seems to come out. If I criticise one unjustifiable idea, I see nothing that should stop me from criticising any and all unjustifiable ideas.

    There does seem to be a tendency to paint anti-theism itself - or more generally the opposition to religion - as something bad. You can certainly perform it badly, but I think the notion that religion, being an unjustifiable idea, should be publicly opposed is not in itself a bad idea, and I'm more than willing to take someone on who disagrees.

    1. To say more on your actual experience, I would be keen to point out to someone that the threat of censure is most definitely not a reason to stop speaking out against something. Point out to them that they probably wouldn't say that to someone fighting for civil rights, say. It's not THEIR fault for speaking out if they get attacked, it's the fault of the attackers. To condone this is to blame the victim.

      It's far worse, in my opinion, to disrespect a person over respecting ideas. And if someone tries to shield themselves from criticism by playing the "respect" card, I don't think that's respectful either to them or to the person they're in discussion with.

  8. For rational debate to take place, you need to respect the person, but not necessarily their beliefs. A person's right to think for themselves and have their own beliefs is essential, even if they are wrong: freedom of belief means the freedom to be wrong, but also the responsibility to hold rational beliefs. Wrong or irrational beliefs deserve no respect, but a person who holds them should still be treated with respect.

    As a Christian, I don't believe my beliefs should automatically command respect. They should only command respect if I can justify my beliefs with rational evidence and arguments - which I believe to be the case, though I'm sure you would disagree!

    To have a productive debate, one that maximises the chances of the participants actually engaging rationally with one another and perhaps changing their mind on the basis of the evidence and arguments presented, then both sides need to treat one another on the assumption of intelligence and good intent unless proven otherwise.

  9. At the risk of shameless self-promotion, this is my perspective:

    Just because we're atheists doesn't mean we have to constantly speak in critique. What a boring life that is.