Monday, 16 April 2012

No Place For Civility?

I was reading Pharyngula today, where PZ Myer's account of a protest outside the GAC got me thinking about how the conversation between believers and non-believers is meant to happen. One could say that it's just human nature that any exchange of this matter will be hostile - we're born believers, not born reasoners after all - but for all the talk of having a fruitful exchange on the topic of religion, how can we possibly do it?

Depite the amount of flyers I get in my mailbox, it's not like I can just walk into a church and start up a spirited, yet respectful, exchange. Likewise I think that any bible study that would have me through the doors would find me a disruption - and in any case my desires are more to talk about the philosophical rather than theological nuances of belief. Where can we go to have this spirited debate?

When I see books like The God Delusion, blogs like Pharyngula, and events like the Reason Rally, what it represents to me is the pushing for a voice in the current cultural climate. I was an atheist long before I found a voice for atheism, but there was little I could do about it other than annoy anyone and everyone with long rants on the topic. Lucky there is personal blogging where I can (mostly) keep it to myself while exercising that desire to speak out. The atheist movement, if movement isn't overselling what is a very small action, in its totality is being one minor voice in a huge sea of voices and topics. One might speculate that the impact it has had in part due to the lack of previous representation.

And even with those few voices and fewer outlets, there's already quite a strong push back. Even among secularists there's at best lukewarm support for the people who have become prominent voices. And at every push to make beyond the most banal of points, there's the accusations of arrogance, stridency, militancy, etc. Jonathan Haidt, in a piece on moral psychology (very interesting stuff, I must add), felt it necessary to take any flaw in the works of the new atheists as being symptomatic of a morally-based militancy. Case in point, that Dawkins didn't spend enough time talking about group selection in The God Delusion as being an example of his moral reasoning rather than scientific reasoning on the process. Hold secular voices to a higher standard? Perhaps. But hold them to an impossible one? Dawkins isn't the only voice sceptical of David Sloan Wilson on group selection...

To make some sort of point with all this, the calls for a civilised conversation are noble. It would be really nice to be able to have civilised conversations, to have constructive dialogues, to have informed and respectful exchanges where being learned was an asset. The question is how that can be achieved. It seems that however a respectful dialogue is meant to be achieved, it's not the way it's going now. And maybe that's true, but it seems that a little incivility is needed to even start the dialogue. Because what other option is there?


Richard T said...

Is a voice worthwhile even if what a some or lot of what that voice says is incorrect. Dawkins is a good scientist but he is a very poor historian. The problem is I find some atheist voices in the media putting out very uninformed opinions. Some arguments raised are good or interesting ones and some are just plain stupid. From what I hear other people say atheists accuse Christians of a similar thing. How do you resolve this when basically both sides think the other is at least partially stupid?

Kel said...

Yes, everyone is just accusing everyone else of being uninformed and wrong and stupid (did you read Scott Stephens last week on The Drum going at both Pell and Dawkins?) and there's just nothing we can do but once again say how badly the new atheists are shaping the discussion... It's not ever the theologians and priests who think they channel the divine on how the world works, or what's moral!

Dawkins, nor is any other atheist, divine. They are fallible people. Part of my point in writing this is how that fallibility is picked at and picked at as if somehow the new atheists are meant to be infallible for even daring to say anything in the first place? Why is it that so many are there to proudly proclaim Dawkins ignorance and throw barbs at him, yet there aren't antiphonal arguments being made sans personal insult? Beating up on the new atheists isn't so much as being up on the ideas as it is beating up on the people who run it, and I think that's to the detriment. If the new atheists are as uninformed as the rhetoric suggests, then making the intellectual case should be easy.

Kel said...

One of the things that really bugs me in discussions is just how easy it is to call someone ignorant, as if that counts as an argument. On any topic, be it religion or anything else, there's a tendency to just go after the messenger rather than the message. What happens then is that the message doesn't get addressed, and it won't be refuted no matter how many times the messenger is labelled ignorant or stupid. It was a view championed by Bertrand Russell, and now held at least implicitly by many who are trying to push for better critical thinking skills, that it's not what you believe but why you believe it. And in most of the criticism I see of the new atheists, there's not much in terms of refuting the claims but there's plenty of people proudly declaring just how ignorant and wrong they are.

That to me is the key, if we're going to have a proper conversation about these matters it can't just be about finding reasons to shoot the opponents down. I can't pretend that atheists aren't doing it either, but it's still frustrating to watch no matter where I encounter it. I think if there's any way out, there has to be a conscious effort to focus on the arguments and try to look at them on their own merits, to be able to explain through what's right and what's wrong about an argument, and not make it personal.

Richard T said...

The problem I see is that some people are willfully ignorant of theological matters. There really isn't anything new that is being raised by anyone today that probably hasn't been dealt with five hundred years ago. The problems of evil, free will, etc are things that Christians are really quite interested in and have been answered quite well be theologians over the ages.

Thinking about it a bit more, my problem isn't ignorance but deliberate ignorance on both sides. For instance, someone raises the point that all Christians don't sacrifice animals anymore and then someone points out that Christians aren't approving of homosexual practice even though both are mentioned in the book of Leviticus. There seems to be a problem there because Christians practice one but not the other. A typical atheist response might go something like this "Christians just pick and choose want they want to follow in the bible". To me this is as ignorant as saying that clearly evolution is false because monkies are still around. If we really did evolve from them then monkies should not exist today. Both parties have the opportunity to find excellent resources on the web or in print on both topics.

Believing the bible is all correct I take the position that everything in the bible is to be followed. Now I need to work out why we follow one but not the other. The short answer is because of Jesus' sacrifice the entire Jewish sacrifical system was made redundant. He was sacrificed once for all so no need for any continual animal sacrifices. Christians still believe the homosexual practice to be a sin because the New Testament still talks about it like that. (A lot of the Christian expression of the belief that homosexual practice is a sin has been quite unbiblical though.)

If you think you have a good argument the other side has not addressed (or addressed poorly) then go nuts but not checking resources out there is deliberate ignorance (or laziness). Surely if you get labelled ignorant enough times perhaps you will try and remedy that ignorance. I definitely agree that personal attacks are a no go and don't really serve any useful purpose.

More interesting to see would be how many people change their mind based on the various debates between Atheists and Christians. It seems at least from my experience that people go in there with their particular viewpoint and it just gets reinforced by the speaker of their persuasion.

p.s. Not many Christians outside of the pope claim infallibility.

Kel said...

"If you think you have a good argument the other side has not addressed (or addressed poorly) then go nuts but not checking resources out there is deliberate ignorance (or laziness). Surely if you get labelled ignorant enough times perhaps you will try and remedy that ignorance."
In that, I think there's a problem. It's easy to tell someone to go read, and to call them ignorant, but what to read and explaining in what way they are ignorant is a lot more difficult. It's been my experience that no matter what I've ever said on religion, I've been called ignorant. I even took to saying what one person told me to another, and the other people still called me ignorant. No matter what, I haven't had anyone say one positive thing at all about possibly knowing anything. Meanwhile I'm often subjected to the same bad arguments which I'm "dogmatic" in rejecting. I often hear it from creationists, who will often pronounce with such bluster how much I'm mistaken and ideological when it comes to evolution, and hear the same few long refuted arguments again and again. I try to explain what is wrong, and eventually I'm accused of hating God or trying to deny God's existence.

In other words, what I find is there's very little substance in terms of where exactly the ignorance lies and how to remedy it. Indeed, I've asked before, and despite putting it on many blogs where I was interacting with believers, I didn't have any takers. In recent times, the best I've gotten was someone recommending an Ed Feser book, but that's really about it. For the amount of times I've been called ignorant (usually while making arguments that don't get addressed, let alone refuted), there's not been anyone to really take the effort to show me where that ignorance lies.

In my ideal view of civil conversation, that's precisely what I think is needed. It's not just a matter of saying someone's ignorant, but explaining how they are in error and what are good resources that would reasonably cover the topic. Although I know it's an impossible standard, and even approximating something close is a laborious exercise for very little real results (in my experience, anyway), but I think that's where a civil exchange is going to be. How that can be facilitated, I have no freaking idea beyond a few exchanges on the net that are forever teetering on the brink of erupting into hostilities. Instead, it's largely trying to find all that information out on my own, until the point that I can see whether it's any good when I get called ignorant again and have to start over.

Intelligent Designer said...

Kel, you remind me of a lot of Christians I knew back in the days when I was one and attended church. You think it's important to convince people that you are right. You also work hard at convincing yourself that you are right. I say this because of the books you have mentioned reading in your blog and because of the books on your wish list.

I think reading Edward Feser would be a waste of time. He is just the flip side of the other books you read and your mind will be busy with refuting what he says and you won’t learn anything. I think it’s better to read real science books – and something like Why Evolution is True doesn’t qualify.

I recommend picking something easy to read but truly scientifically informative. For example, Microbiology for Dummies or Genetics for Dummies.

I don’t know that civil conversation can be facilitated. In fact, I am under the impression that bullying is an intentional tactic of new atheists. As for you, you should keep being civil and not worry about results. It’s more important to be nice than to convince someone you are right.

Kel said...

What I would say in response is that I think it's important to be right - or more specifically to base one's position from knowledge.

The reason Feser is in my Amazon list is that it was recommended to me.

I'm not sure civil conversation can be facilitated also, but I would hope that it can. And I don't think it's a dichotomy between civility and being right, either, as civility for the sake of civility gets us knowledge. Issues have meaningful ways of being discussed, there are possible ways at ascertaining truth, and my personal opinion is that if people are aiming for that goal then conversations will be a lot better.

The new atheists don't just bully, though some do, but there are serious issues that are part of the message. My gripe with claims about their incivility is that the message goes largely uncountered beyond just saying X is uncivil and ignorant. There's not much time taken to explaining the merits and follies of a particular argument, and it's all too easy just to get personal.

Intelligent Designer said...

Sometimes it’s important to be right and sometimes it isn’t. If I have a medical condition and the treatment I choose could be the difference between whether I live or die, then it’s important to be right. If I have to make a last minute decision on which way to turn on the way to a soccer game, it doesn’t matter much which way I turn. If I make the wrong choice I may be a few minutes late. It does matter that I make my choice in a safe manner. It’s better to alive than to turn the right way.

While you and I have profoundly different ways of thinking, we both think Christians are wrong. Also I still have a lot of Christian friends and every once in a while one will try to bring me back into the fold. Maybe they are worried that I might go to hell and they think it’s important. However, I can’t see any good that it would do to convince one of my Christian friends that they are all wrong. In fact, it may do harm. If a person is happy being a Christian and it works for them I don’t have any motivation to change their thinking. People gain by being part of a community; they may be Christians, new atheists, Toast Masters, belly dancers or trekkies – it doesn’t matter. Having friends is important and enriches one life. That’s a lot more important than being right.

Let me ask you this question. How would becoming an atheist make my life or the lives of people around me better?

Kel said...

"How would becoming an atheist make my life or the lives of people around me better?"
No idea. But to me, that's the wrong question. The existence or nonexistence of God really doesn't matter for most of what is being argued by atheists. That atheism is a respectable position to hold is something that still has to be fought for culturally (though not academically), and certain kinds of beliefs need to be opposed on those same grounds.

But in general, the rise of the new atheist is for a large part down to social aims. That religion can and does have an affect on others, and thus should not be above criticism like any other belief about the world. It's also to fight against the erroneous popular conception that religion is closely linked with morality and meaning. It's amazing that even now it's religious people and not atheists who talk about how meaningless and immoral life without God is. While that's a popular conception, voices should rise up to counter it.

I think there needs to be an appreciation between the quest for truth and the quest to convince others that I have it. I think shutting up about any issue is a mistake, and people should not be afraid to engage and to be held to account for what they say they believe. That said, I'm not particularly interesting in whether anyone becomes an atheist - if their lives are better enriched by what I consider to be a delusion, then good luck to them provided they afford me that same right.