Hey, Atheists!
August 17, 2010 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Don't be a dick, you're speaking with God's voice!
posted by jtron (186 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
sorry, but my voice is my voice. love, dick.
posted by kitchenrat at 12:42 PM on August 17, 2010


I'm about 15 minutes in and so far it's a fantastic talk. Thanks for posting.
posted by The World Famous at 1:00 PM on August 17, 2010


Prosthelyte=dick, whether the object is belief or non-belief. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
posted by Faze at 1:01 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


From the second, link (PDF), God's voice is that of facts and truths of nature, and God is a personification of the splendors of the universe, or something along those lines.

Interesting pairing of articles. I'd like to hear more on why the self-described "evolutionary evangelist" thinks the Bible is worth referring to at all, if proper documentation could reduce "divine revelations" to "nothing out of the ordinary (nothing miraculous)."
posted by filthy light thief at 1:02 PM on August 17, 2010


The internet discovers liberal protestantism.

Episcopalians discover the rhetorical power of swearing.

Film at 11.
posted by felix betachat at 1:03 PM on August 17, 2010


For what it's worth, my years of observing, participating in, and dealing with a variety of religions has led me to one simple ethical/spiritual/religious precept by which I try (and often fail) to live: "Try not to be an asshole."
posted by mmahaffie at 1:05 PM on August 17, 2010 [10 favorites]


"In times of war, we need warriors; but this isn't a war ... we aren't trying to kill an enemy. We're trying to persuade other humans. And in times like that, we don't need warriors. What we need are diplomats."

Speaking as an old-time Web gunslinger who still finds himself reflexively reaching for his side-irons in online discussions, this is good advice, not just for skeptics, but for anybody who wants more out of a Web discussion than a bloodbath.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:06 PM on August 17, 2010 [21 favorites]


Odds are that people being polite and tolerating spiritual and moral hucksters, shimsham artists, cons, frauds and other weasels has probably done more for continuing human suffering over the last two thousand years, than the occasional "dick" calling it out.

To prove this, consider how few people have been brave enough to stand up to religious authority over that time period, considering also the consequences they suffered. Most were burned at the stake or suffered some equally violent end.

It is only in the last few decades that skeptics have had the freedom to operate in Western societies without state-sponsored persecution, and even those individuals continue to suffer contempt for having to audacity to call out superstitious shams. Even the subject of this thread is essentially calling Dawkins or Randi "dicks" for being atheists, while strenuously denying it.

I'm not sure there's a solution to this, other than for atheists to keep pointing out that the metaphorical emperor is still naked and he is still ripping people off, and never mind the apologists who want to keep tolerating the on-going scamming.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:09 PM on August 17, 2010 [23 favorites]


I quite like Dowd's approach (the second, PDF link in jtron's post). It reminds me somewhat of Teilhard, or what today might be called deism: the philosophy that God is the ever-ongoing act of the Universe, and religion should be a discussion about our relationship to that and each other.

However, it removes from religion those very factors that draw so many to it: the intellectual relief of having an ultimate authority and moral arbiter; the prospect of life after death; the possibility of divine intervention in everyday life; justification for acts that would otherwise be perceived as hateful or abhorrent. I'm not sure that religion would remain recognizable, or even survive, if one culled those aspects from it.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 1:10 PM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure there's a solution to this, other than for atheists to keep pointing out that the metaphorical emperor is still naked and he is still ripping people off, and never mind the apologists who want to keep tolerating the on-going scamming.

It's possible to do that without being a dick.
posted by The World Famous at 1:11 PM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


I believe his point is that it's not very effective to attempt it by being a dick. Civility will win more converts than contempt.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:12 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


From the New Atheists link:

For example, Poseidon was not the god of the oceans, as if some supernatural entity separate from water was looking down from on high or rising from the deep. Poseidon was the personification of the incomprehensibly powerful and capricious seas!

...

Evidence from a wide range of disciplines, from cognitive neuroscience to anthropology to crosscultural study of the world’s myths and religions, all support the claim that God is a divine personification, not a person. More, there is no counter-evidence. This fact alone makes sense of the hundreds of competing stories around the world as to what God supposedly said or did. "God" is a mythic name for Reality in all its sublime fullness.


Honestly if you define God down to a mythical framework laid over natural but incomprehensible processes, what is the point of being a Christian? Whittling the idea of God down to an imagined personification and disavowing large sets of beliefs that were built into the religion seems to make less sense than abandoning that particular religion and its baggage entirely.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:16 PM on August 17, 2010 [7 favorites]


Skeptics want to abolish belief and establish a monoculture. That would be an end to the evolution of ideas at the fringe. Diversity is good. Humanity needs people who believe in things that aren't true as much as it needs people who demand verification. Genius pops up in strange quarters.
posted by Faze at 1:19 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's possible to do that without being a dick.

When people like Dawkins and Randi are called dicks for daring to be skeptical, I think the word "dick" has arguably lost most of its meaning.

So the real question becomes if we should take people seriously who resort to that weak accusation to dismiss skeptics and skepticism.

After all, it's not like those two guys are ripping people off by pretending to bend spoons, or promising salvation if you pay up, or launching wars overseas to murder and rape in the name of some deity. That's real dickery. People who scam, maim and kill other people over superstition are the real dicks, frankly.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:20 PM on August 17, 2010 [18 favorites]


Whittling the idea of God down to an imagined personification and disavowing large sets of beliefs that were built into the religion seems to make less sense than abandoning that particular religion and its baggage entirely.

Unless one cherishes a cultural and historical connection with one's predecessors, a feeling of shared purpose in an ongoing conversation over matters of ultimate concern, and the liberty that comes with participating as a fully autonomous member of a community whose relationship to its founding principles is active and dynamic rather than frozen in the 14th century.
posted by felix betachat at 1:20 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


The problem is that a lot of religious people use watered down the-unexplained-universe-is-god! deism and more traditional theism interchangeably—as they see fit. It's a neat trick.


I'll end my post with this exchange from Stella:

Michael: I know there's something out there, but I don't know if I wanna call it "God."
Michael: Okay, 'cause like, I believe in God...
Michael: Right.
Michael: ...but I don't know that I think God is some guy on a throne with a long white beard.
Michael: Right. Like to me, God is, like, it could be anything. It could be like...
Michael: Literally, it could be this table.
Michael: It could be - totally be this table. It *is* the table.
Michael: It's like I'm spiritual, but I'm not religious. Do you understand?
Michael: I totally...
Michael: It's like I can get off spiritually with the sunlight through trees.
Michael: Oh, my God...
posted by defenestration at 1:23 PM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


people being polite and tolerating spiritual and moral hucksters, shimsham artists, cons, frauds and other weasels has probably done more for continuing human suffering over the last two thousand years, than the occasional "dick" calling it out.

Don't see where he calls for toleration. Argue, speak out. It's being an arse about it that doesn't convince anyone - you seem to be falling into the second group of people he talks about in the first link who

are claiming I was saying we need to be milquetoasts.

To which he replies

That’s ridiculous. I was very clear that anger has its place, that we need to be firm, and that we need to continue the fight....I thought I had been clear, but a lot of people seem to think that I meant anyone who gets upset, or angry, or argues with emotion.

Seems pretty clear to me that this is not the strawman you're looking for.

Even the subject of this thread is essentially calling Dawkins or Randi "dicks" for being atheists, while strenuously denying it.

Care to give any evidence for this? Aside from your ability to see being the very plain words of the author into the deep reaches of his soul, that is.
posted by AdamCSnider at 1:24 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Humanity needs people who believe in things that aren't true as much as it needs people who demand verification. Genius pops up in strange quarters.

Source?
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:25 PM on August 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


On retrospect, screw that last sentence of mine. That was me being a dick.
posted by AdamCSnider at 1:25 PM on August 17, 2010


When people like Dawkins and Randi are called dicks for daring to be skeptical, I think the word "dick" has arguably lost most of its meaning.

I admit that I have, on many occasions, called Dawkins a dick. Not because he dares to be skeptical, but because he acts like a dick. Dawkins would be a dick if he were a baptist minister or anything else. His dickishness has nothing to do with his skepticism. Skepticism is merely a vehicle for Dawkins' dickishness.

I can't imagine that I've ever called Randi a dick. I don't think he's a dick at all.

So the real question becomes if we should take people seriously who resort to that weak accusation to dismiss skeptics and skepticism.

If someone resorts to calling someone a dick for the purpose of dismissing skepticism, then you should not take that person seriously. Does that answer your "real question?" I think I agree with you on that point.

After all, it's not like those two guys are ripping people off by pretending to bend spoons, or promising salvation if you pay up, or launching wars overseas to murder and rape in the name of some deity. That's real dickery. People who scam, maim and kill other people over superstition are the real dicks, frankly.

Nice logic there.
posted by The World Famous at 1:29 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


It's being an arse about it that doesn't convince anyone

Yup. This is true for everyone in the world. Question:

Would "Muslims shouldn't be dicks" be a good article? It's true, right you guys?? No one should be a dick.

How about "Black people shouldn't be dicks?"
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:32 PM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


So the real question becomes if we should take people seriously who resort to that weak accusation to dismiss skeptics and skepticism.

Every time this discussion happens here, there are numerous atheists and otherwise skeptics who chime in with the don't-be-a-dick crowd, so I think that framing this discussion as prima facie between skeptics and believers who want the skeptics to shut up is disingenuous.


After all, it's not like those two guys are ripping people off by pretending to bend spoons, or promising salvation if you pay up, or launching wars overseas to murder and rape in the name of some deity. That's real dickery. People who scam, maim and kill other people over superstition are the real dicks, frankly.


The problem that I have with the skeptic-as-dick is that s/he continues to use this wide brush to paint all people of faith. Not everyone with a belief in supernatural things is a huckster, a scammer, or has maimed or killed anyone. In fact, most of the people you'll get into a discussion with on the internet are not people who have done any of these things, so attempting to persuade them by being a dick is, as stated upthread, counterproductive and unnecessary.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:34 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


How about "Black people shouldn't be dicks?"

Do black people have a history of being dicks in trying to convince white people not to be white? I'm not following your parallel.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:37 PM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


Odds are that people being polite and tolerating spiritual and moral hucksters, shimsham artists, cons, frauds and other weasels has probably done more for continuing human suffering over the last two thousand years, than the occasional "dick" calling it out.

I didn't watch the video, but read the article in the first link, and there's a nice bit of quick clarification:
I think that way when the person belittles their opponent, uses obviously inflammatory language, or overly aggressively gets in their face.

Y’know. Being a dick.

Again, to be clear, I did not say we should back down when confronted. I did not say we should be weak against ignorance. I did not say we shouldn’t be angry. I did not say we should be passionless.

In fact, I argued the exact opposite. We need our anger, or strength, and our passion.
Emphasis is original. When it's Holier Than Thou vs Smarter Than You, no one wins, no one is persuaded. Both sides come away confident that the other side is a dick, and that they are still right, and both sides look bad to moderates.

Call the cons on their frauds and stand your ground. But yelling "Your god is a fake!" to followers of religions does nothing to encourage them to think about what they believe.

Skeptics want to abolish belief and establish a monoculture. That would be an end to the evolution of ideas at the fringe.

There is no monoculture in science, and there is plenty of fringe science. There are hypothesis, theory and law in science, each with differing levels of certainty and agreement.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:38 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


People who scam, maim and kill other people over superstition are the real dicks, frankly.

And we've had plenty of threads in which we discuss the tremendous over-the-top dickishness (dickitude?) of such people, BP. The point of discussion here is a lower-level of dickishness which has a damaging effect on the ability of skeptics to convince non-skeptics of their point of view. As pointed out by Phil Plait, a skeptic and former President of the James Randi Foundation, who thus presumably doesn't have much to gain from steering his compatriots wrong on this issue.

"Black people shouldn't be dicks?"

Errr...it's a side note, but say what?
posted by AdamCSnider at 1:41 PM on August 17, 2010


Nice logic there.

I guess I prefer words to be meaningful, and that it pays to remember who the Bad Guys are here. I think if you spend your life making other people miserable by taking advantage of them, or hurting/killing them, it is reasonable to call you a dick. What Richard Dawkins does is not being a dick, at least in the context of what being a dick is really about in the Big Scheme of Things.

Though I suppose if the label of "dick" is thrown at people like Dawkins long enough, it will stick, for the purposes of associating skepticism with being a "dick". So, in this context, the meaning of the word has been successfully corrupted for the purpose of pejorative association.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:45 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I guess I prefer words to be meaningful, and that it pays to remember who the Bad Guys are here.

I agree with you. The bad guys are the people who take advantage of ignorance or faith to do terrible things.

But what about when you are addressing yourself to the believers, who are often the victims of the con men and the demagogue who have taken advantage of their poor reasoning skills, or the faith they were raised in, or their desire for something extraordinary? How do we address them in such a way that we're not simply the next iteration of people who have contempt for them?
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:54 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Every once in awhile, like now, I am reminded to be thankful that my parents didn't name me Dick.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 1:55 PM on August 17, 2010


C'mon guys, don't be a Short Attention Sp.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:57 PM on August 17, 2010


drjimmy11: "Would "Muslims shouldn't be dicks" be a good article? It's true, right you guys?? No one should be a dick.

How about "Black people shouldn't be dicks?"
"

Those actual words may not have been used, but the same debate occurs within everyone marginalized group. "Do we go all out and get in their faces about it?" vs. "Getting them even angrier at us doesn't help the cause." The important part here is that it occurs IN the group (mostly). MLK vs. Malcom X and all that.

It never is that simple, though. I believe that it's Pope Guilty who likes to say that the Ghandi route only works because of the one out there who are gonna kill you if you don't play nice with the peacemaker.
posted by charred husk at 1:58 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Though I suppose if the label of "dick" is thrown at people like Dawkins long enough, it will stick, for the purposes of associating skepticism with being a "dick". So, in this context, the meaning of the word has been successfully corrupted for the purpose of pejorative association.

Really? When was it that the alleged original meaning of the word "dick" included only "people who spend their life making other people miserable by taking advantage of them, or hurting/killing them," and did not include the more common definition used currently when referring to someone as a dick? I'm interested in your take on the etymology.

It seemed to me that you were trying to say that, because there are way worse people out there than dicks, being a dick isn't actually a bad thing. So thank you for clarifying it and explaining that you are relying on some historic meaning of the word "dick" that I'm not aware of.

Setting aside discussion of the etymology of the word "dick" so that we can discuss the subject matter of the post rather than bickering about word definitions or whether the atrocities committed throughout history in the name of various religions are really bad, do you agree with Phil Plait, or do you think that it is productive or even advisable for skeptics to behave in the manner that Plait describes as "being a dick?" If you were the one addressing the JREF-sponsored event on that occasion, would your advice to its skeptic attendees have been that they should strive to act like dicks?
posted by The World Famous at 1:59 PM on August 17, 2010


Those actual words may not have been used, but the same debate occurs within everyone marginalized group.

I would be cautious about comparing skeptics to black people. There is a difference between criticism based on things that are volitional and not. We are not born skeptics, we choose it. We are not oppressed because of something innate in us.

Moreover, how we choose to represent ourselves is volitional. If we choose to be uncivil, and people respond poorly, it is not the same thing as somebody burning a cross on our lawn for our skin color. It's an inapt parallel, and an odd one to trot out when a skeptic is asking other skeptics not to engage in the volitional behavior or approaching others with scorn and contempt.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:02 PM on August 17, 2010


I'm interested in your take on the etymology.

The foundation of my etymological analysis is built upon Richard Dawkins being called the atheist equivalent of Louis Farrakhan -- as has happened here on Metafilter, no less -- and much, much worse. Because of that kind of behavior I think I have to call into question the general, lazy and ridiculous ease with which his detractors call him names.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:05 PM on August 17, 2010


It's not always about Dawkins.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:05 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Going to ignore some of the (granted, inevitable) derail on here to simply say: Great post! I enjoyed the video very much.
posted by tiger yang at 2:06 PM on August 17, 2010


It's not always about Dawkins.

My point is more general. It's about the choice of language being used to dismiss skepticism. He just happens to be one particular lightning rod for contempt, because he is visible and doesn't apologize for being rational.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:08 PM on August 17, 2010


"Some people fear the darkness and others run from the light. It is the thing that sustains the two concepts that we are searching for."

-Brother Dave Gardner
posted by chronkite at 2:10 PM on August 17, 2010


tone and attitude count here. Think of it this way: when someone argues that way do you think to yourself, "What a dick"? I don’t; at least not necessarily. I think that way when the person belittles their opponent, uses obviously inflammatory language, or overly aggressively gets in their face.

That's fine in theory... except that's not the way it works in practice. In the real world, atheists get called "uncivil" for posting things like this and this, comments which would be considered perfectly civil if they were about any other human institution. The bar for atheists to be "uncivil" is already so low that the soundtrack is starting to get a little familiar, and I see little point in helping move the stick to encompass "belittling, obviously inflammatory language, or over-aggressiveness". There's plenty of that everywhere you look, and it thrives where no one dares counter it with the same... but oops, you touched the stick! This is a civil game -- you're out, you asshole atheist dick!

That's why I don't like the "don't be a dick" meme. I think it plays into a huge double-standard which isn't working in atheism's favor; in a lot of ways, it simply justifies the idea that being anti-religious is bad, and that "good" atheists shouldn't be anti-religious. That's bunk, because atheists can be anti-religious, pro-religious, or neutral toward religion. The idea that any one of these stances is inherently "dickish" is an attempt to redefine atheism into something it's not: in this case, an inoffensive yet "skeptical" system of morality which discourages negativity toward religion in the name of "changing hearts and minds".

Sorry, but that's not my atheism, and I refuse to shut up and sit quietly because other people think I'm hurting the cause. If that's the cause -- a world in which disbelief "should" equal positivity, and those who won't play along are labeled "dicks" -- then I am hurting the cause, and proud of it.

I don't believe. I despise religion. And that alone does not make me a "dick".
posted by vorfeed at 2:11 PM on August 17, 2010 [9 favorites]


I agree that skepticism is unfairly dismissed, and I agree that sometimes perfectly decent conversations are minimized by complaining of misbehavior that did not happen. On the other hand, I do not think that skeptics get to avoid getting called out when they legitimately misbehave merely because it makes it easier to ignore them when they don't. The point made in this particular video -- that uncivil behavior is more likely to alienate than convince -- is a sound one, and I am not going to complain that he refers to that sort of behavior as dickish. It is. We skeptics are famous for not tolerating evasive or weasely language. We should not exempt ourselves from that simply because others misuse it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:12 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's about the choice of language being used to dismiss skepticism.

That is unfortunate. But it's off-topic, because the thread here is about a talk given by a skeptic to his fellow skeptics, and he doesn't mention Dawkins, and he doesn't dismiss skepticism, because he's for it.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:12 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you are not behaving in genuinely uncivil behavior, and are being unjustly dismissed, this video was not about you. That is a separate discussion.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:14 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Can we agree that Hitchens is a dick?
posted by five fresh fish at 2:14 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


The man is sick. When people are sick, we call them prickly.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:15 PM on August 17, 2010


Do black people have a history of being dicks in trying to convince white people not to be white? I'm not following your parallel.

It's a meta thing; you wouldn't understand.
posted by coolguymichael at 2:20 PM on August 17, 2010


But it's off-topic

Look, discussion of the subject of his talk is not off-topic and it's not a derail. He does mention Dawkins in the linked text. Even if he is a skeptic, I would argue he is inadvertently hurting skeptics by arguing for what I would call artificial civility, which does nothing but play into the hands of the very hucksters who use the language I worry about.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:20 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Even if he is a skeptic, I would argue he is inadvertently hurting skeptics by arguing for what I would call artificial civility

I am curious about this. He is not terrifically specifically in his call for civility, except that he thinks it is poor form to call people idiots, shout in their faces, and mock them as child molesters. What do you find artificial about his request?
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:21 PM on August 17, 2010


He mentions Dawkins specifically to say that he wasn't talking about him.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:22 PM on August 17, 2010


I would argue he is inadvertently hurting skeptics by arguing for what I would call artificial civility, which does nothing but play into the hands of the very hucksters who use the language I worry about.

So, just to clarify, are you arguing that skeptics should act like dicks? Or are you arguing that, because skeptics are often unfairly accused of being dicks purely because they are skeptics, civility is impossible to achieve or is not a productive goal? Or are you arguing something else?
posted by The World Famous at 2:22 PM on August 17, 2010


So, just to clarify, are you arguing that skeptics should act like dicks?

Yes, this is exactly what I have been saying all along. You got finally me.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:29 PM on August 17, 2010


Humanity needs people who believe in things that aren't true as much as it needs people who demand verification. Genius pops up in strange quarters. (Faze)
compare that assertion to this quote from Voltaire: those who believe in absurdities will commit atrocities.
Humanity does not need people who believe in things that aren't true. Truth is often not fully known and almost always debatable, but even so, truth is better than delusion. The more accurate our beliefs are, the better.
posted by grizzled at 2:30 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


So, just to clarify, are you arguing that skeptics should act like dicks?

Yes, this is exactly what I have been saying all along. You got finally me.


Ok.

Just out of curiosity, what specific objective do you think is advanced by being a dick?
posted by The World Famous at 2:31 PM on August 17, 2010


People who scam, maim and kill other people over superstition are the real dicks, frankly.

I don't see why you need the "over superstition" qualifier in that sentence. Are religious scammers, maimers and killers worse that non religious ones? And what do you think would happen if you successfully convinced these people that their god doesn't exist and they became true atheists? Do you think they would cease to scam, maim and kill? Not a chance.
People use religion to justify lots of evil deeds. Take away their religion and they'll find something else to justify them...or continue without justification. Attacking religion does little to stop evil and targets quite a few non-evil people in the process. That's why some find it dickish.
posted by rocket88 at 2:32 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Just out of curiosity, what specific objective do you think is advanced by being a dick?

Can't help you, brother.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:32 PM on August 17, 2010


Can't help you, brother.

I don't understand. Is that a genuine response, or are you just being a dick?
posted by The World Famous at 2:33 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's a nice video, but I think the problem is that he's assuming that as skeptics we all want to proselytize. I can't speak for everyone but I personally don't care to convert anyone. So it's not about being polite in an effort to win converts, it's just a matter of calling mythology for what it is. Arguing about religion is largely futile and tiresome, and I believe that most people who claim a religion truly know better but refuse to admit it because it's part of their culture to practice, and not doing so would cause them grief in their communities and families.
posted by mullingitover at 2:35 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't want to gang up on BP here, because I think that's rather counter to the whole raison d'etre of this post as I understand it. I think I understand what he's saying, but I think it would be helpful if we could articulate a distinction between what he calls 'artificial civility' and actual civility, because it seems to me that the linked video is concerned with actual civility, but BP seems to read it as being namby-pamby or whatever, maybe even concern trolling. I think defining what we're talking about should do a lot to bridge this disagreement.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:38 PM on August 17, 2010


I'm not really out to disabuse people of their foolish notions either, in part because I would prefer they not disabuse me of mine. I only concern myself when I think there is a scam going on, or if somebody's superstition seems like to actually hurt them. I do not believe the failure of humanity is that it believes nonsense. I believe the failure of humanity is that is behaves poorly toward each other, and you can be utterly rational and still do something terrible, because it rationally is in your best interests.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:39 PM on August 17, 2010 [6 favorites]


I think it plays into a huge double-standard which isn't working in atheism's favor; in a lot of ways, it simply justifies the idea that being anti-religious is bad, and that "good" atheists shouldn't be anti-religious.

I think you've hit on the problem. It's much harder to identify with groups that are anti-something, because the cast starts out negative. I think that culturally, we have too much counter sentiment and not enough advocacy. The war on drugs doesn't help drug users (and they need help rather particularly) because it's an anti-drug thing rather than a pro-well-being one. Anti-abortionists can come off holier-than-thou because by definition they aren't leading with trying to help the mom, and instead denounce. And modern political dialog is perhaps the largest example. Why is Rush Limbaugh so reviled by some? Because if you've ever listened to his show, very little of the content is pro-Republican--it's anti-Democrat. He tears down the other side instead of building his own. He's an extreme example, but that trend's just about everywhere.

We've resorted to vitriolic denunciation. When you despise something, and that's your fuel, you have to be careful how you come off or you risk becoming another angry guy, another mud-slinger. I think that skepticism is among the healthiest of mankind's impulses, but if fewer discussions turned into "the religious are delusional, we must awaken the masses" and instead became "how can we help these people to apply rational thought to their world view," things would probably be quite a bit healthier. If non-skeptics are the victim of cultural groupthink--and I would agree that in most cases, they are--why would you send out firstly a message of negativity and anti-them?
posted by Phyltre at 2:40 PM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


It's a genuine response. I don't care to learn what your motive is to bother to keep playing your silly game. I can't and won't help you, sorry.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:40 PM on August 17, 2010


Unless one cherishes a cultural and historical connection with one's predecessors, a feeling of shared purpose in an ongoing conversation over matters of ultimate concern, and the liberty that comes with participating as a fully autonomous member of a community whose relationship to its founding principles is active and dynamic rather than frozen in the 14th century.

I didn't mean to be flip about it in my previous comment, and obviously there are valid reasons why someone like Dowd would still self-identify as Christian. But at a certain point there is not really any functional difference between a Dowd-like Christian and an atheist who thinks that the Bible is a neat mythical story, other than possibly going to church on Sunday. Major new religious sects have sprung up over much smaller quibbles over theological details than Dowd's near-total rejection of literal truth in Christian beliefs. It seems like his view of Christianity is different enough that it's not really Christianity anymore, and is fundamentally different from traditional religions in general.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:43 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's a genuine response. I don't care to learn what your motive is to bother to keep playing your silly game. I can't and won't help you, sorry.

That's an unfair presumption, Blaze. I believe the questions were asked in earnest, and you have simply refused to answer them. That's your prerogative, but it does not make your interlocutor the one who is playing games.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:52 PM on August 17, 2010


Skeptics want to abolish belief and establish a monoculture.

No they don't.

he thinks it is poor form to call people idiots, shout in their faces, and mock them as child molesters. What do you find artificial about his request?

Who would possibly disagree? Then what are we talking about?

Thanks for doing the legwork, BP.

The funniest thing about the video is that Phil Plait seems like a dick. Condescending bastard.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:52 PM on August 17, 2010


The funniest thing about the video is that Phil Plait seems like a dick

One of the marks of skepticism is not stating opinion as fact.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:55 PM on August 17, 2010


I believe the questions were asked in earnest

With respect, I don't share that belief. I don't think asking if skeptics should be uncivil as a matter of course is something done in good faith, nor is being called a dick an act of good faith. I'm choosing to step away from that game, either way.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:57 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Just out of curiosity, what specific objective do you think is advanced by being a dick?

I don't want to conflate race and belief (since we've already gone down that hole), but a lot of bus passengers in 1944 probably thought Irene Morgan was a dick.

I guess the argument would that "being a dick" might make someone consider your argument more. I can certainly imagine situations where that might be the case.

Let's say you're in a book club, or any group discussion, where a religious argument comes up, and one of the members takes matters into his own hands and says, "OK, we can agree that X, now let's move on," and you certainly don't "agree with X" and press your point, and he says, "come on, let's move on to another subject, you're being a dick," and there's someone else at the meeting who would like to hear what you have to say but has been cowed into silence by the de facto "leader" of the group.

There's one.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:59 PM on August 17, 2010


You have not answered my questions either, Blaze, and I assure you they were asked in earnest.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:03 PM on August 17, 2010


One of the marks of skepticism is not stating opinion as fact.

Can you explain? I am not a skeptic, but sometimes I am a dick.

(Oh, I see. Sorry. But do I really need to include "to me" here? Is that not implied? Can there really be an objective "funniest thing"?)

OK.

To me, the funniest thing about the video is that, to me, Phil Plait seems like a dick.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:04 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah; he didn't to me.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:05 PM on August 17, 2010


With respect, I don't share that belief. I don't think asking if skeptics should be uncivil as a matter of course is something done in good faith, nor is being called a dick an act of good faith. I'm choosing to step away from that game, either way.

My questions were asked in earnest, Blazecock Pileon. It genuinely seemed like you were saying that skeptics should be uncivil as a matter of course. And I didn't mean to call you a dick - my question was a sincere follow-up to your assertion that you think skeptics should act like dicks.

From the outset, you appeared to be taking issue with and disagreeing with Plait's talk, and that's what I was curious about.
posted by The World Famous at 3:06 PM on August 17, 2010


We also need to define what "dick" means here. I honestly don't really know.

Would "jerk" suffice as a synonym or is it more extreme?

And if "jerk" would suffice, why did the speaker choose the much more inflammatory term "dick"?

That seems like a dick move. To me.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:07 PM on August 17, 2010


It genuinely seemed like you were saying that skeptics should be uncivil as a matter of course.

Not to speak for BP, but, to me, I think he was saying the vice versa, that is, "skeptics should not necessarily be civil as a matter of course."

At least that's how I personally interpreted it for me.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:09 PM on August 17, 2010


It seems to me that in the last few decades, these right-wing/ fundamentalist con artists have become so powerful because the average Joe is an easy mark and because rational people (on the left) are SO TERRIFIED of being seen as dicks.

Too many people were silent during the run up to the Iraq invasion because they were afraid to run the risk of appearing shrill or poorly informed. I mean, the media mouthpieces just seemed so sure of everything.
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:14 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


mmahaffie: "For what it's worth, my years of observing, participating in, and dealing with a variety of religions has led me to one simple ethical/spiritual/religious precept by which I try (and often fail) to live: "Try not to be an asshole.""

Yeah a few years ago I started to think what the ultimate religious "commandment" was, and "Don't be a dick" was pretty much it. Then a couple years ago, I started seeing it on those black and white bumper sticker squares (the kind that say "mean people suck" and "racists suck").

I've also seen it crop up.

Maybe anti-dickism can become a new movement. You don't have to love your neighbor, just don't be a dick.
posted by symbioid at 3:21 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


For maximum ironic timing, this speech was given right after (or possibly during) the meltdown/flameout/implosion of "You're Not Helping", a blog ostensibly devoted to calling out dickish behavior on the part of skeptics.
posted by hades at 3:21 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


What gets lost in any discussion of religion vs. skeptics is the difference between the purveyors of religion (i.e., the leadership) and the believers (not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the intersection set is pretty small in my experience). If one criticizes religious belief on the grounds that religious institutions and operatives of those institutions have caused enormous harm historically, you are immediately faced with the the masses of believers who have never committed any major harm in their lives protesting loudly that you are mischaracterizing their beliefs and the impact of those beliefs on the world.

This is not a bug in religious software, but a feature. It is what makes the argument that we would be better off without religion a damn hard sell. From the perspective of the true believer who feels a true sense of value in the beliefs themselves, there is no argument against those beliefs. If you point to the harm done by the institutions in the name of those very beliefs, the believers say, well, some people are bad and shouldn't do those things. They will not ever be able to see that the very beliefs they hold and the fact that so many have been induced to hold them (if you doubt induction has anything to do with it, then explain the high correlation between belief and birthright) lead to the ability of those bad people to commit those harms on such a massive scale. The individual believer need not take up arms, or even support the taking up of arms (or torture of non-believers or shunning them from society), but merely professing and extolling the beliefs that those who do support the harm use to rationalize them provides the enormous lever that religious institutions use to commit their dastardly deeds. Another counter argument the believers use to avoid confronting this dilemma is that the sum total across the entire community of each individual believer's good feelings and benefit from those beliefs outweighs the total institutional harm from religions. That calculus is difficult to evaluate, but it is only valid if one accepts a priori that those benefits cannot be obtained with another, less easily corrupted philosophy of life that eschews religious outlook, or that, at least, takes a less dogmatic approach (as in the second link). I'm not sure that assumption is well tested.

As an illustration of the problem, imagine the religious believers who believe that it is better the government not collect taxes for the purpose of supporting the poor and infirm, because such charity should be given from the heart and not coerced, then proceed to point out all the good done by religious donations. This begs the question of how much of the government support could be replaced by such voluntary giving. Historically, we have not done so well before the government became involved. Poverty and shuttering of the infirm were much bigger problems proportionally before the New Deal and other social programming. I suspect if we removed those programs, voluntary support would go back to where it was before, with a great increase in unnecessary suffering. Obviously, one cannot prove that without a potentially horrific experiment, hence the difficulty in making the argument.

But, sure, being less of a dick probably will win you more friends, even if they don't believe a word you say.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:21 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


So, just to clarify, are you arguing that skeptics should act like dicks? Or are you arguing that, because skeptics are often unfairly accused of being dicks purely because they are skeptics, civility is impossible to achieve or is not a productive goal?

I can't speak for BP, but I'm arguing that skeptics should feel free to act like dicks, or not, just like everyone else. And because skeptics are often unfairly accused of being dicks purely because they are skeptics, demanding enforced civility as the only acceptable policy is likely to be an extremely counter-productive goal. It's essentially making the other side's argument for them.

Like I said before, "When tolerance toward religion is used to suggest that it's "offensive" to express anti-religious opinions, pushing for it certainly does not help me as an anti-religious person. That sounds like a real good way to "tolerate" myself right into an "offensive" corner."
posted by vorfeed at 3:25 PM on August 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


What Richard Dawkins does is not being a dick, at least in the context of what being a dick is really about in the Big Scheme of Things.

Dawkins is the biggest dick, and the most destructive player for people who are actually atheist, but don't want to join the cult of atheism that seems to, for some unknown reason, need to tell everyone else you need to be like us. Most real people who aren't trying to promote their books and career, and who are atheist, couldn't care less what beliefs other people have and have no interest in 'converting' them. They tend to respect other people. I have very little respect for Dawkins since the Selfish Gene.
posted by Elmore at 3:32 PM on August 17, 2010


Well put, vorfeed. I agree.
posted by defenestration at 3:33 PM on August 17, 2010


Dawkins is a flat out anti-theist. He thinks that religion actively causes harm and, in his perfect world, it would be eradicated. This is probably the view that makes a lot people think he's a dick. (Not to mention aspects of his rhetorical style.) That isn't atheism. All atheism is is a lack of belief in god.
posted by defenestration at 3:42 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I can't speak for BP, but I'm arguing that skeptics should feel free to act like dicks, or not, just like everyone else.

Well, of course. I wholeheartedly agree.

demanding enforced civility as the only acceptable policy is likely to be an extremely counter-productive goal

I didn't get that from the linked video at all. Did you?

Like I said before, "When tolerance toward religion is used to suggest that it's "offensive" to express anti-religious opinions, pushing for it certainly does not help me as an anti-religious person. That sounds like a real good way to "tolerate" myself right into an "offensive" corner."

Again, I wholeheartedly agree. Anti-religious opinions are not offensive (or "dickish" to use the term in the linked video). And it is crucial to make the distinction between anti-religious opinions that are characterized as offensive per se and communication of those opinions in a deliberately or recklessly offensive way.

As I said above, it's possible "for atheists to keep pointing out that the metaphorical emperor is still naked and he is still ripping people off, and never mind the apologists who want to keep tolerating the on-going scamming" without being a dick.

The fact that many people accuse skeptics (many of whom are atheists) of being dicks regardless of what skeptics do or say is a separate issue, and a very legitimate one.
posted by The World Famous at 3:43 PM on August 17, 2010


tone and attitude count here....

That's fine in theory... except that's not the way it works in practice. In the real world, atheists get called "uncivil" for posting things like this and this, comments which would be considered perfectly civil if they were about any other human institution.


Comment 1: out of context, I thought the comment was equating all evangelical activities with the Spanish Inquisition in the goal of saving souls at any cost. In context (child abuse in the horribly misguided attempt at raising Godly children), it's fitting. Broad in application, as not all religions that believe in an afterlife are evangelical or try to save the souls of others.

Comment 2: summarized as the actions of these Christians (same child abuse thread) taints all other Christians, which I think is off-base, though I may be mis-reading the comment.

I think there are better examples of how to talk about atheists speak their mind about religion and religious ideas distorting reality. That was an ugly topic for comments, as the actions were ugly from any angle (kids were beaten to death). Saying "this is the fault of All Religion" isn't winning any supporters from any quarter.

If you talk to people you disagree with like they were your misguided friends instead of mortal enemies, I'd imagine things would go better, assuming the other party doesn't fully understand your position and isn't lying to instill fear and distrust in others. Even if it's the latter - are you going to convince some charlatan the errors of their ways by being a dick, or will you even alert their followers?

Further personal tangent: there's tolerance of religions as structures of faith, and there's tolerance of messages based on religious agendas. I'm fine if you believe in gods above or below, but if you start questioning scientific understandings based on personal feelings of religious beliefs, then there are issues. (Yes, I'm hazy on where the specific line is between the world of faith and the world of reality, thus my interest in Rev. Michael Dowd's ideas, with the hope that they do a better job of melding scientific understanding of the cosmos with religious faith in the unknowable whatnots.)
posted by filthy light thief at 3:44 PM on August 17, 2010


Not speaking for BP, but skeptics/atheists should not be held to a higher standard of civility than 'believers' and when a 'believer' tells me (as several have) that "You are going to Hell", i.e. "You are going to be doomed to eternal pain after your physical death because you do not kowtow to a set of arbitrary standards many of which have no logical or factual basis whatsoever", can ANY skeptic/atheist POSSIBLY be a BIGGER dick than that?!?
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:44 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


Elmore, what if those beliefs include the tenet that saving your soul for the infinite afterlife is more important than any harm committed against your corporeal self, and that, therefore, mortifying you to obtain your salvation is justified? Would you still care least? Especially if those believers had the power to carry out that tenet against your atheist self? It's happened in the past in Western culture, it still happens elsewhere in the world, and there's no guarantee it can't happen again if enough people believe that way.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:45 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think that skepticism is among the healthiest of mankind's impulses, but if fewer discussions turned into "the religious are delusional, we must awaken the masses" and instead became "how can we help these people to apply rational thought to their world view," things would probably be quite a bit healthier. If non-skeptics are the victim of cultural groupthink--and I would agree that in most cases, they are--why would you send out firstly a message of negativity and anti-them?

Because I am negative on this issue, and I'm not interested in living a lie in order to make someone else feel better. Especially not someone who isn't under the same limitation with regards to their own beliefs. Much of religion is deeply negative -- thou shalt not commit adultery -- yet the religious are not expected to couch that in positive terms like "how can we help you to apply monogamy to your world view".

Moreover, this is counterproductive, because "sending out firstly a message of positivity and pro-them" simply plays into age-old assumptions (like the ones your argument depends on) about what's positive and what's negative, and about what gets to be the "default" and what has to be "against it". In this case, embracing those assumptions amounts to apologia, and being an apologist is a naturally weak position; no one wants to listen to someone who feels they must defend their own beliefs because they're not the opposite. People don't couch their opinions in Bizarro Speak unless they are ashamed of them, and displaying shame is a huge mistake when you're arguing with people who already believe you ought to feel ashamed of your beliefs.

Approaching the religious with "blah blah blah positive positive but how can we help you apply rational thought to your world view" is an argument which contains its own refutation: if religion is such a positive force that even the people who are against it have to admit its goodness, then it should obviously persist forever! This is already assumed by the vast majority in this culture, so shoring it up even further is totally counter-productive.

Some arguments are not positive, nor should they be.
posted by vorfeed at 3:47 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm starting to question whether more than 2 or 3 of the people participating in this thread have actually watched the talk.
posted by The World Famous at 3:51 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


what if those beliefs include the tenet that saving your soul for the infinite afterlife is more important than any harm committed against your corporeal self, and that, therefore, mortifying you to obtain your salvation is justified? Would you still care least? Especially if those believers had the power to carry out that tenet against your atheist self? It's happened in the past in Western culture, it still happens elsewhere in the world, and there's no guarantee it can't happen again if enough people believe that way.

I'll stand by my beliefs and take the consequences. That I am atheist won't change, and I certainly won't join the atheist cult to stop other's having their own beliefs and thereby 'protecting' me by removing their faith.
posted by Elmore at 3:56 PM on August 17, 2010


Ah, another chance to quote H.L. Mencken's post-Scopes Monkey trial piece, Aftermath!
The Liberals, in their continuing discussion of the late trial of the infidel Scopes at Dayton, Tenn., run true to form. That is to say, they show all their habitual lack of humor and all their customary furtive weakness for the delusions of Homo neanderthalensis. I point to two of their most enlightened organs: the eminent New York World and the gifted New Republic. The World is displeased with Mr. Darrow because, in his appalling cross-examination of the mountebank Bryan, he did some violence to the theological superstitions that millions of Americans cherish. The New Republic denounces him because he addressed himself, not to "the people of Tennessee" but to the whole country, and because he should have permitted "local lawyers" to assume "the most conspicuous position in the trial."

Once more, alas, I find myself unable to follow the best Liberal thought. What the World's contention amounts to, at bottom, is simply the doctrine that a man engaged in combat with superstition should be very polite to superstition. This, I fear, is nonsense. The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.

True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge. Did Darrow, in the course of his dreadful bombardment of Bryan, drop a few shells, incidentally, into measurably cleaner camps? Then let the garrisons of those camps look to their defenses. They are free to shoot back. But they can't disarm their enemy.
In context of this article, I believe Mencken is referring to Liberal Protestants when he writes "Liberals," but I'm not 100% certain.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:04 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


(for what it's worth, Mencken is sort of a dick)
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:06 PM on August 17, 2010


To be perfectly honest, as a 'meh!' atheist, describing Dawkins as anything other than an insignificant if vocal blip on a long period of human history which will include atheists before and after him, strikes me as un-needed alarmism. We're talking about the absence of faith. Now as far as being accepted as an atheist, presuming Dawkins is a dick and must therefore shut up lest he tar all of us is creating your own "cult of atheism", as you put it.

I generally avoid sceptic culture because of excessive back patting, and perennial disinterest in religion unless people are trying to have it at me (much like I'm unperturbed by furries until someone asks me to yiff) but given that some of the human population thinks I worship demons and if they ran the world, I should die, I hardly feel being called obnoxious is much of a loss.

On the other hand I find generically spiritual attempts to insert a god into the cosmos by any means possible, by renaming it the universe after the usual venues have closed down is somewhat irritating, much the same way that a Unitarian candle light (Christmas) ceremony that's been viciously scrubbed secular until none of the carols scan anymore because they replaced all references to Jesus with seasonal astronomy is also a bit annoying.

Then again, I'm not a patient person and I've been known to respond to statements like "Gays should not be married in Canada, because Canada is Christian" with "That's stupid." rather than painstakingly debating the rights of other people to marry as the choose. So maybe I am a dick.
posted by Phalene at 4:10 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


demanding enforced civility as the only acceptable policy is likely to be an extremely counter-productive goal
I didn't get that from the linked video at all. Did you?


Yes, I did. The video is a moral argument -- it suggests that skeptics shouldn't be "dicks", and that they should have "persuading human beings" to accept "a rational world" as a goal. "Taking the low road doesn't help", "don't be a dick": how is that not "demanding enforced civility as the only acceptable policy"?

C'mon, his speech ends with the idea that he'd love to "never even have to ask" if someone had been a dick. Sure sounds as if he'd be happy with a world in which civility was the only acceptable policy.
posted by vorfeed at 4:13 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


and I certainly won't join the atheist cult to stop other's having their own beliefs and thereby 'protecting' me by removing their faith.

Wut?
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:13 PM on August 17, 2010


The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous.

Hear hear. And that can be done without being a jerk.
posted by The World Famous at 4:14 PM on August 17, 2010


Yeah, this is a coupla weeks' ago's news in the atheistosphere. And the consensus was, no, getting in the faces of people who try to push religious garbage onto others is not being a dick. And the way to deal with the apologists and concern trolls who say otherwise is to say "Oh dear, you think I'm a dick for calling you out on your bullshit. How sad. Never mind. I will do my best not to cry myself to sleep tonight."
posted by Decani at 4:20 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


if religion is such a positive force that even the people who are against it have to admit its goodness

I didn't say that, I don't believe that, and I'm wondering why you've attributed that to me. I'm not saying be positive because they're religious, I'm saying be positive because you're trying to be persuasive to human beings. At least, you should be trying to be persuasive, if you think you're right and you're against religion and you'd like to marginalize it. It's not a sign of weakness to start off with an admission that the other side is made up of human beings, that you'd be helping by introducing skepticism to.


yet the religious are not expected to couch that in positive terms like "how can we help you to apply monogamy to your world view".

And I'd argue that's a failing of modern religion taken as a whole. To be clear, I'm not making any assumptions here whatsoever about what's positive or negative. I'm saying anti-religion is a negative position because your platform is anti-something instead of pro-something-else. That's a pretty clear definitional matter. Of course in politics that gets smeared all around, like in anti-abortion/pro-life situations, but the tone can really make a difference.

The tone, I think, is what matters. The kind of disdain you get from some skeptics/atheists is counterproductive, definitionally speaking, unless you really don't care if religion goes away and are comfortable alienating the people who need your input the most. That's the point.
posted by Phyltre at 4:22 PM on August 17, 2010


Dawkins is a flat out anti-theist. He thinks that religion actively causes harm and, in his perfect world, it would be eradicated.

Which, while much too general an assumption, is an opinion based more upon the facts than any existing religion. But people with irrational beliefs (which are most if not all religious beliefs) will respond irrationally to being told they are being irrational, so it seems that what is needed is often not 'subtlety', but rather deception, in the cause of persuasion. To his credit, Dawkins doesn't do that, choosing "dickery" over deception.

If you talk to people you disagree with like they were your misguided friends instead of mortal enemies, I'd imagine things would go better.

The existence of Holy Wars show that people who disagree with you on Ultimate Truths always have the potential of becoming mortal enemies, and, on preview, what Mental Wimp said.

I usually avoid discussing with misguided friends anything that they are misguided about; it's not my job to fix them. So I am not treating the members of the MetaFilter Community as 'friends', misguided or not, when I make contentious statements in contentious threads. I do it to (1) hear myself think and give a pre-posting critical view at what I've written to decide if that really IS what I think (I've backed away many times) and (2) to get what I think out where it can be reacted to and see if anybody argues back with an argument I haven't heard a million times before, and see if anybody else shares even part of my view of the world (favorites?). Yes, I'm a very self-centered poster. So ignore me.

Disclaimer: I haven't seen the talk linked in the post, but as derailed as this discussion may be, it looks like it's getting down to the crux of the issue better than the talk could.

The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous.

Hear hear. And that can be done without being a jerk.


No it can't. Maybe not by your own standard, but the act of attacking irrational beliefs will always be defined as 'dickery' by the irrational believer. See above.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:25 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yes, I did. The video is a moral argument -- it suggests that skeptics shouldn't be "dicks", and that they should have "persuading human beings" to accept "a rational world" as a goal.

No it isn't. It's a tactical argument, and he is explicit about that. But perhaps "persuading human beings" strikes you as a moral stance If so, I am curious about your reasons for engaging other people, if not persuasion.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:26 PM on August 17, 2010


Maybe not by your own standard, but the act of attacking irrational beliefs will always be defined as 'dickery' by the irrational believer. See above.

He addresses that, as has been pointed out, and has also been pointed out, that is not this discussion. He was specifically addressing actual behavior on the part of skeptics that would, by a near consensus, be considered to be expressions of hostility and contempt, and not a civil, reasoned, respectful discussion between people who go in with the good faith assumption that each other is capable of dialogue.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:29 PM on August 17, 2010


This is good advice, because many of the 'new atheists' are tremendous dicks. It might be cathartic for some people, and probably increases the number of 'out' atheists. But it can be very annoying, especially when they argue that they are superior to religious people.

I don't think god exists and that atheists are correct on that point. But there are a number of dimensions by which people can be measured, beyond being correct on one particular (though important) point.
Odds are that people being polite and tolerating spiritual and moral hucksters, shimsham artists, cons, frauds and other weasels has probably done more for continuing human suffering over the last two thousand years, than the occasional "dick" calling it out.
In order to 'tolerate' someone, you need to be in a position where you can choose not to. That hasn't been the case, and more then that, those people were not tolerated if they didn't toe the same line as people in charge. Places where religious freedom was allowed (Like the U.S) have actually worked out a lot better then places where they haven't. In fact, 'toleration' for different religious views is the only reason atheism is possible.

It's a bit ridiculous to see people who would have been burned at the stake 400 years ago, or stoned to death in Afghanistan today to be complaining about religious freedom.
Would "Muslims shouldn't be dicks" be a good article? It's true, right you guys?? No one should be a dick.
They certainly shouldn't be dicks when trying to convince people to become Muslims, which seems to be the goal of these new atheist proselytizers.

As an Aside I don't find Dawkins as much of a dick as people like Chris Hitchens or Sam Harris. Additionally Sam Harris is an idiot.
My questions were asked in earnest, Blazecock Pileon. It genuinely seemed like you were saying that skeptics should be uncivil as a matter of course.
To clarify: He was being sarcastic when he said 'this is exactly what I have been saying all along', and then he assumed you realized he was being sarcastic, and assumed your follow up questions were also sarcastic, which is why he followed up with 'I don't care to learn what your motive is to bother to keep playing your silly game.'
and ragequit the thread.

Try hating on Apple products for a while if you want to become familiar with his rhetorical style.
posted by delmoi at 4:31 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hear hear. And that can be done without being a jerk.

No it can't. Maybe not by your own standard, but the act of attacking irrational beliefs will always be defined as 'dickery' by the irrational believer. See above.


As I understand it, the view set forth in the talk is that skeptics, in order to advance their position, should not actually be dicks- not that they should not do anything that anyone else might self-servingly decide to label as dickery.

I didn't say "that can be done without being perceived as a jerk." I said "that can be done without being a jerk."

The video is a moral argument

First, I agree with Astro Zombie that it's really not. But even if it is, so what? Morality and skepticism (or atheism, for that matter) are not mutually exclusive.

Sure sounds as if he'd be happy with a world in which civility was the only acceptable policy.

It sounds to me like he would be happy with a world in which everyone was always civil by choice. Wouldn't you?
posted by The World Famous at 4:31 PM on August 17, 2010


I have resolved to take my life credo from Johnson, and am planning an easily-accessible tattoo reflecting same:

Let none be wretched by my persuasion.

I submit that this is a fine philosophy.
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:35 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


And the consensus was, no, getting in the faces of people who try to push religious garbage onto others is not being a dick.

Plait's specific example of dickery was name-calling: "asshole, retard, idiot." That need be no part of getting in anyone's face. "How many of you here," he says, "lost your belief [in anything] because someone called you an idiot?"
posted by Countess Elena at 4:46 PM on August 17, 2010


..and just as soon as I said "Disclaimer: I haven't seen the talk linked in the post, but as derailed as this discussion may be, it looks like it's getting down to the crux of the issue better than the talk could", everybody wants to address specifically the talk. Okay, I'll watch the talk, but I suspect I'll just disagree with it, because "persuasion" is not accomplished by civility alone, but usually requires a whole arsenal of manipulative and deceptive practices.

I didn't say "that can be done without being perceived as a jerk." I said "that can be done without being a jerk."

Very few people are jerks by their own standards. The designation of 'jerk' or 'dick' is always arbitrarily applied by others.

It sounds to me like he would be happy with a world in which everyone was always civil by choice. Wouldn't you?

Yes, many serial killers have known the value of being civil to their intended victims.

"How many of you here," he says, "lost your belief [in anything] because someone called you an idiot?"

First rule of salemanship: never let the buyer know just how stupid you think he is.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:51 PM on August 17, 2010


I didn't say that, I don't believe that, and I'm wondering why you've attributed that to me. I'm not saying be positive because they're religious, I'm saying be positive because you're trying to be persuasive to human beings. At least, you should be trying to be persuasive, if you think you're right and you're against religion and you'd like to marginalize it.

I wasn't attributing it to you, but to the hypothetical religious people we're talking about. Being positive toward religion plays into the assumption that religion is intrinsically positive, and thus gives religious people an excuse not to change their behavior.

The idea that one can't be both negative and "persuasive" is just that: an idea. I don't buy it. I think negativity can be an extremely powerful engine of persuasion, especially when it's combined with a clear way out of the negative category. This thing you are doing is bad, therefore you are being bad, but look: you can choose not to be bad, starting right now! C'mon in, the water's fine!

This kind of argument is all over the place in our society, from recycling to equality, and it works. The idea that atheists shouldn't use it is, again, a double-standard.
posted by vorfeed at 4:58 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't want to persuade, I want them to get some damn facts, apply a liitle simple logic, and then quit hurting people with their stupid goddamn single-issue politicking.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:58 PM on August 17, 2010


We are not born skeptics, we choose it.

I really think we are, actually. Or, at least, we are born absolutely credulous but learn extremely quickly to be skeptical about all kinds of things (largely determined by the communities we belong to). I don't think that belief or lack of belief is chosen at all, really, in many (most?) cases. Like political affiliation or food preference, our beliefs are shaped by forces beyond our control. There may be a moment of conversion (liberals become conservative, meat-lovers become vegetarians, Blazers fans root for the Lakers) but I think that to call it simply a choice misses the point.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 5:00 PM on August 17, 2010


I don't want to persuade, I want them to get some damn facts, apply a liitle simple logic, and then quit hurting people with their stupid goddamn single-issue politicking.

So you want to skip the step where you persuade them to do those things? Without an army and a secret police force to do your bidding, that'll be mighty hard.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:06 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


. . . I don't think that belief or lack of belief is chosen at all, really, in many (most?) cases.

It certainly can be. I used to be religious, and I remember the terrible doubts; I remember staring into the stained glass windows so that the holy light could chase my thoughts away; I remember begging God to make me good and holy and His. Credo quia absurdum est: the ancient statement of faith, I believe because it is absurd -- I abdicate reason.

A great many believers -- we can never know how many exactly, of course -- are not refusing to agree with skeptics because they can't understand the arguments, or they can't believe the arguments, but because they do, and that belief frightens them so much that they would sooner step off a cliff than admit it. This applies to any number of perfervid faiths in the unseen, not just one religion or even all religions.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:13 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


First, I agree with Astro Zombie that it's really not. But even if it is, so what? Morality and skepticism (or atheism, for that matter) are not mutually exclusive.

They're not mutually exclusive, but they're not necessarily inclusive, either... and people like Plait won't admit that. They want everyone to play according to their "tactics", so we can "win" what they won't even admit is a war. Too bad, because atheism is amoral -- not immoral, but amoral -- which means that stapling any particular morality onto the top of it is an attempt to make it into something it's not. An "atheist cult", as Phalene called it above.

I challenge the idea that I'm a bad atheist because I'm anti-religious. If that's a bad atheist, then I don't want to be a good one... and the single worst thing in "tactics" is to be divided, so why are we playing this game?

Hell, the guy can't even stick to his own rule -- he calls other skeptics' behavior "appalling", even while he's trying to convince them, but then it's "not convincing" to call religion "idiotic"? This alone suggests that Plait's argument is less about tactics, and more about morality.

It sounds to me like he would be happy with a world in which everyone was always civil by choice. Wouldn't you?

No. I do not always choose to be civil. Strife has a value all its own; without it, we can never accept conclusions which are anathema to our own thinking, and so we can never escape the echo-chamber of what's come before. I think Nietzsche was right about this: no use being a camel when you can be a lion, or better yet, a child.
posted by vorfeed at 5:19 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


vorfeed, notwithstanding your alleged disagreement that it is more productive to be civil than to act like a dick, you are being quite civil in this thread. Why, in this particular instance, have you chosen to be civil? If you have analyzed this particular exchange and decided that civility is tactically a better approach than incivility and insults, what was your thought process in arriving at that conclusion?
posted by The World Famous at 5:39 PM on August 17, 2010


A stupid question here. This is the second FPP to the blue this month arguing that atheists shouldn't be dicks. When do we start getting equal time for the proposition that people shouldn't be dicks toward atheists?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:51 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


When do we start getting equal time for the proposition that people shouldn't be dicks toward atheists?

I guess that will happen when people on MetaFilter decide that speeches by religious leaders to their congregations make good front page posts. I don't think they do, so don't look to me to post an FPP of that sort.
posted by The World Famous at 6:01 PM on August 17, 2010


Now as far as being accepted as an atheist, presuming Dawkins is a dick and must therefore shut up lest he tar all of us is creating your own "cult of atheism", as you put it.

Dawkins hate runs deep, so deep that we've had people argue that Dawkins shouldn't express an opinion regarding a completely unrelated issue in his home country because he taints every issue that he expresses an opinion on. That is taking dislike to ridiculous extremes.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:21 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Countess Elena: Plait's specific example of dickery was name-calling: "asshole, retard, idiot." That need be no part of getting in anyone's face. "How many of you here," he says, "lost your belief [in anything] because someone called you an idiot?"
Conversely, how many people not being held at de-facto gun/sword/starvation/burning-stake-point were ever actually convinced of the existence of the magic sky man because someone told them they were going to hell otherwise?

Anecdotes are of course not data, but I've met a fuck of a lot more 'dicks' who believed in $deity-of-choice in my life than 'dicks' that didn't.

Which isn't to say that I don't welcome the self-assertion of less dickish believers, majority that they doubtless are among their kind. Those dicks have been giving those guys a bad rap for too long. I like them plenty, even though I agree with not a single thing about their beliefs.
posted by genghis at 7:32 PM on August 17, 2010


When do we start getting equal time for the proposition that people shouldn't be dicks toward atheists?

Did you read the second link?
posted by jtron at 7:41 PM on August 17, 2010


The World Famous: The fact that many people accuse skeptics (many of whom are atheists) of being dicks regardless of what skeptics do or say is a separate issue, and a very legitimate one.

I don't see it as a separate issue at all. The negotiation of meaning is a two-way street, and the argument that atheists would be more persuasive if we just refrained from using bad names fails against the double standard that atheists are called dicks for merely having strong and unpopular opinions about religion.

Perhaps I'm a cynic, but I don't think that persuasion works here. Either you'll have the experience of realization that changes your view of the world, or you won't, and I'm not particularly interested in a double standard in which people can say ridiculously offensive statements about me, my experiences, and my family, and deny me license to my own anger.

jtron: Did you read the second link?

I did actually. But no one seems interested in talking about the possibility that people of religious faith might actually have something to learn from us atheists. At least not here. I can have these conversations with family and in other communities, but I think the internet largely fails when it comes to building this bridge.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:02 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


But then again, I'm not surprised given that there was minimal discussion how religious people need to change in what became the last scold the atheists thread, in spite of the linked post talking about problems on both sides of the chasm.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:15 PM on August 17, 2010


vorfeed, notwithstanding your alleged disagreement that it is more productive to be civil than to act like a dick, you are being quite civil in this thread.

I'm not disagreeing that it's sometimes more productive to be civil than to act like a dick. I'm simply saying that it is not necessarily always more productive to be civil than to act like a dick... and that if you're already going to get called a dick anyway, self-censoring this way is often counterproductive.

To put it another way, somebody gives a talk in which they say "Apples! Apples are awesome! They are so delicious, way more delicious than oranges! Wouldn't you be happy in a world where everyone always ate apples by choice? Don't eat oranges!" Disagreeing with this doesn't necessarily mean I have to be frothing at the mouth going ORANGES ORANGES RAAAAAAAARGH all the time -- maybe I just want to keep my orange options open.

Maybe I'm just not interested in living in Appletopia.

Why, in this particular instance, have you chosen to be civil? If you have analyzed this particular exchange and decided that civility is tactically a better approach than incivility and insults, what was your thought process in arriving at that conclusion?

a) experience suggests that mefi can no longer handle "incivil" dissent on some issues without a callout and/or a flameout or two and b) I'd rather not stir up internet drama, so c) why not win by looking more civil than the same folks who are yelling "you have to be civil, you intolerant dickish asshole"?

That's it, really. Note that a) is not a civil atmosphere in the least, nor is it very productive, so hurrah for double-standards. I think it's a shame that many mefites would rather play Hoppitamoppita Wargames than deign to discuss these issues in-thread with the "intolerant" "dicks" on the other side -- you'd think it'd be easy to counter their concerns, since they're oh-so-invalid to begin with, amirite? -- but that's the way it is, so I guess I'm playing a nice game of chess.

Checkmate.
posted by vorfeed at 8:25 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think the stalemate is kind of inevitable; (a-)theism has been discussed circularly on MeFi for years now. We already know what the usual suspects are going to do, and they pretty much always do the same things. All that's left is the meta-game.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:43 PM on August 17, 2010


Connie Barlow mentioned in the second link wrote Green Space, Green Time which I only got about partway through but was influential when I was weaning myself away from paganism.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:51 PM on August 17, 2010


I liked the story about a spiritual teacher who said, there is no God when speaking to those of his students who believed in God, and some of the students who were advanced in their practice, were enlightened. Likewise, he said there is God to his atheist students and some of them were enlightened. Also: both Dawkins' and Randi's problem is not that they're wrong or dicks, but that they're insanely dull. They're right, but they're dull.
posted by rainy at 8:57 PM on August 17, 2010


"Odds are that people being polite and tolerating spiritual and moral hucksters, shimsham artists, cons, frauds and other weasels has probably done more for continuing human suffering over the last two thousand years, than the occasional "dick" calling it out."

'Occasional' dick? Which internet are you on?
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 8:58 PM on August 17, 2010


Atheists are trolls. The end.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 9:05 PM on August 17, 2010


The tone, I think, is what matters. The kind of disdain you get from some skeptics/atheists is counterproductive, definitionally speaking, unless you really don't care if religion goes away and are comfortable alienating the people who need your input the most. That's the point.

Clearly, what we need are more atheist summer camps.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:23 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Has anyone objected yet to the use of "dick" as a pejorative? If not, I will. Someone has to for all the dick lovers out there. I met one last week, and all she could talk about was "dick, dick, dick, dick, dick." Even though she is not here, I will object in her spirit.

Is calling someone a "dick" any better than calling someone a "daft cunt"? No, it is not.

If you want to talk about civility and respect, then start by respecting my motherfunking johnson.

Atheists are trolls. The end.

Not if they don't tell anyone. (I am not an atheist.)
posted by mrgrimm at 11:04 PM on August 17, 2010


God's an asshole, according to the Bible.
posted by telstar at 11:25 PM on August 17, 2010


If I'd been in Plait's audience, I'd have been one of the people putting up my hand as a former believer. And no, I wasn't convinced to become a skeptic by atheists being dicks. I was convinced by a gradual process of discussion with atheists who were charming and knowledgeable and kinder and more broad-minded than the religious people I'd been associating with. They had scientific explanations for my religious beliefs, but they didn't mock my beliefs, just pointed out the holes, offered an alternative explanation, and then let me be.

Those atheists were trying to win, and not just to win me over but to win over as many people as they could, because they truly believed that our lives would be better for it. They were passionate and funny, and sometimes they got really fucking angry about the bullshit that happens in religous communities. But they never called other people in the discussion names, didn't insult our families or our history, didn't laugh at us for being wrong. I wasn't the only one persuaded by them.

Here at Mefi I've seen atheists unfairly accused of being dicks when they were just stating facts. And religious people have gotten a pass on stating that atheists are heartless, mean, joyless and blind to the awesomeness of the world, which is also a dick move. But Plait isn't talking about specific Mefi patterns of behaviour, or Dawkins or Randi, he's talking about his own experiences and observations. He's saying that if you're trying to persuade people to your point of view, then name calling and mockery are not useful tactics. If you're going for a slash-and-burn thing, well knock yourself out. But everyone will be annoyed when you show up and start pissing in the pool.

We've established that yelling at people in Ask Mefi doesn't convince them you're right, no matter how many noobs come in and try tough love. Why would it be any different anywhere else?
posted by harriet vane at 11:43 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm inclined to be more rude to those who've adopted a version of Christianity so washed out that God becomes the personification of natural phenomena. At least the other guys have a book and they stick to it. The first guys are a strip of mental floss away from Jim Carrey's 'I AM HEAVEN' shtick.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:48 PM on August 17, 2010


He's saying that if you're trying to persuade people to your point of view, then name calling and mockery are not useful tactics. If you're going for a slash-and-burn thing, well knock yourself out. But everyone will be annoyed when you show up and start pissing in the pool.
We've established that yelling at people in Ask Mefi doesn't convince them you're right, no matter how many noobs come in and try tough love. Why would it be any different anywhere else?


Because it is. Because a "civil" approach is not the only approach, nor the only effective approach, and pretending as if it is closes doors that probably ought to remain open.

Let me tell you a little story about that, since nobody seems to want to take the idea at face value. I was new at my job, and got sent to fix some software at a customer site. It was a big power plant, and I'd never been to a power plant before, so I was being sort of nervous and dumb about it. I was with two guys in hard hats who were showing me around the plant, and we were walking down this hallway surrounded by giant pipes and valves and such. It was really noisy in there, and one of the guys mentioned to the other to be careful, because that meant there was a pinhole leak in there somewhere.

Well, being a dumbass 22-year-old computer nerd who wasn't afraid of pinholes, I said, "I'll help you find it!" And I ran my arm over one of the big pipes, sort of jokingly.

The two guys stared. One of them finally said: "Wow, that was really stupid. When we're looking for leaks we do the same thing with a broomstick, and when the end of the broomstick falls off, we've found the leak."

I grabbed my arm and cringed. He smiled. And I never touched anything at a customer site without being asked to, not ever again.

I suppose he could have been "civil" and said "now, be careful, I'm sure you don't realize that tiny high-pressure steam leaks are very dangerous and can cut you blah blah blah", but you know what? I was being really stupid, and sometimes you need to be straight-up told that you're being really fucking stupid, before somebody gets hurt.

He did me a favor that day -- one that's stuck with me for years, and probably wouldn't have stuck if it hadn't involved a good dose of "name calling and mockery". Who knows, maybe he was just repeating an industry legend... but there's a reason why everyone in that industry knows it, and chances are somebody else taught him the same lesson the very same way.

It just goes to show that a "gradual process of discussion" isn't the only way to convince somebody, nor should it be. There are a hell of a lot of things in this world which just don't work that way... and if you think otherwise, you'd better carry a broomstick.
posted by vorfeed at 12:44 AM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


High-pressure religion can cut a body in half?

I do think it's useful to apply Plait's point to another kind of debate, though. Say politics, for instance. How would you want people on the 'other side' to speak to you - assuming they genuinely felt you were wrong, your beliefs were harmful to your community and country, and that it would be better for you if you converted to their point of view? And assuming that you were totally happy to debate politics with them, and were open to the theoretical possibility (slim though the chance might be) that they were right?

'Cause, I don't know about you, but I quite like debating politics. And I'm happy to debate them with conservatives who think I'm absolutely wrong. I seriously doubt they'll convince me, but if they can come up with some hugely compelling argument I haven't heard before, then yes, the possibility exists that they might do. I am imperfect; I could always be wrong. But if the debate starts slipping from them trying to convince me, as a rational and fairly intelligent human being who is capable of thinking things through just as much as they are, to them being a dick? Then I'm gone, because life is too short to debate at length with people who act like dicks.
posted by Catseye at 1:24 AM on August 18, 2010


Yeah, I'm not sure it's such a good analogy. If my toddler nephew is about to put his hand on a hot stove-top I don't gently explain thermal conductivity to him. I snatch his hand away or yell "Don't touch that", because the negative consequences are likely to happen within seconds, as with your example. Afterwards I can explain in terms he'd understand, or apologise for yelling. I'm not directly comparing you to a toddler, just noting that in both examples there was a lack of experience in the environment you found yourselves in, and you needed somene knowledgeable to save you from hurting yourself.

And that guy didn't belittle you, he gave you a verbal illustration of why you shouldn't do that; pretty efficient, really. It might have been embarrassing, especially in front of other people, but it's not the same as him being a dick to you.

I get what you're saying about how not everyone responds to the same input. But no-one, not even Plait, is saying that we should always use the same tactics everywhere. They're just ruling out one tactic, 'being a dick', because it hasn't had a high success rate, and suggesting we try other things instead.

Some people appreciate blunt honesty, some throw up their defences at that but will allow seeds of ideas to be planted and left to grow slowly. It depends a lot on their history and experience with disagreements.

But I just don't know anyone who responds in an open-minded way to having their existing beliefs belittled or being called names (anecdotal, sample size=my circle of friends and family). I've never seen any evidence that it helps a rational conversation, and as far as I know there's plenty of evidence that it just makes people aggressive and defensive.
posted by harriet vane at 3:16 AM on August 18, 2010


Atheists are trolls. The end.

Dude, don't be a dick.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:48 AM on August 18, 2010


Here at Mefi I've seen atheists unfairly accused of being dicks when they were just stating facts. And religious people have gotten a pass on stating that atheists are heartless, mean, joyless and blind to the awesomeness of the world, which is also a dick move. But Plait isn't talking about specific Mefi patterns of behaviour, or Dawkins or Randi, he's talking about his own experiences and observations. He's saying that if you're trying to persuade people to your point of view, then name calling and mockery are not useful tactics. If you're going for a slash-and-burn thing, well knock yourself out. But everyone will be annoyed when you show up and start pissing in the pool.

The problem is that the people scolding atheists have cried wolf so many times that the whole thing has become a pejorative stereotype, that is universally applied.

Scolding atheists rarely seems to happen in the interest of actual dialog among groups, because the scolds will liberally stereotype people of faith as unreasonable, annoying, or obnoxious as well. And will steadfastly refuse to acknowledge any other aspect of the FPP such as whether atheists and skeptics offer kindness or a beautiful way of looking at the world. Some of the scolds are fairly explicit about their intent to set themselves up as the most reasonable person in the room by attacking both sides.

It's become a classic tone argument not that dissimilar to the way that Andrew Sullivan built his career as a conservative columnist by repeatedly yelling that gays would have a lot fewer problems if we were just a bit less, you know, gay. It's rarely used to call out actual bad or malicious behavior, but used to put us into the defensive position of proving we're reasonable people, and IME that's impossible because the scolds tend to consider even polite objections to their stereotypes as being a dick.

I can't take the scolds seriously because they're vague to the point of irresponsibility, they overgeneralize to the point of bigotry, and are deceptive in regards to their interests in trying to create fellowship.

But I just don't know anyone who responds in an open-minded way to having their existing beliefs belittled or being called names (anecdotal, sample size=my circle of friends and family). I've never seen any evidence that it helps a rational conversation, and as far as I know there's plenty of evidence that it just makes people aggressive and defensive.

Yes, and I'll say that that the scolds show little interest in actually engaging in beliefs or rational conversation.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:41 AM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


The only thing that can account for bitter angry atheists is a syphilitic mind.
Don't tell me to explain that comment, nobody that doesn't "get it" deserves an explanation. None of you sheeple can follow my logic. How can you follow my logic when it's made of straw? You can't. I'm on another plane. So fuck angry people! Mean people suck, and I don't have to climb down out of this tree, when you've got a newly painted ladder in your shed, you FUCK MONKEY.

I know I'm right, I know I'm right, I know I'm right, I know I'm right, I know I'm right, I know I'm right, I know I'm right, I know I'm right
posted by nola at 6:35 AM on August 18, 2010


...the scolds show little interest in actually engaging in beliefs or rational conversation

I agree. Plus they can often drown out any actual conversation that might be starting up between believers and skeptics. But that doesn't excuse anyone else from being a dick - wrestling pigs and all that.

It's not what Plait was talking about anyway - he's a skeptic addressing skeptics, and isn't talking to believers or fence-sitters. He's engaged in a bit of dick behaviour himself over the years, and now feels that it didn't really serve his purpose as a science communicator.

He's got a further post up which links to other reactions to his talk, grouped into pro/con/neutral: Don't be a dick, part 2.
posted by harriet vane at 7:27 AM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Blazecock Pileon: "It's possible to do that without being a dick.

When people like Dawkins and Randi are called dicks for daring to be skeptical, I think the word "dick" has arguably lost most of its meaning.
"


Not according to Dickipedia.
posted by bwg at 7:43 AM on August 18, 2010


The two guys stared. One of them finally said: "Wow, that was really stupid. When we're looking for leaks we do the same thing with a broomstick, and when the end of the broomstick falls off, we've found the leak."

I grabbed my arm and cringed. He smiled.


Now imagine the same scenario where, instead, the guy just said "you are the stupidest effing person on the face of the earth, you idiot. If you weren't so delusional, you wouldn't try to help us in such a moronic way," and then, when you did not grab your arm, but instead got defensive about him being such a dick, he just sneered at you and stormed off.
posted by The World Famous at 9:55 AM on August 18, 2010


Now imagine the same scenario where, instead, the guy just said "you are the stupidest effing person on the face of the earth, you idiot. If you weren't so delusional, you wouldn't try to help us in such a moronic way," and then, when you did not grab your arm, but instead got defensive about him being such a dick, he just sneered at you and stormed off.

And then! A thousand monkies pounding randomly on keyboards create a computer virus that take down the (Geth/Borg/Independence Day Aliens/NSA/GladOS)! Take that!
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:00 AM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


And the Daleks. How could I forget the Daleks!
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:04 AM on August 18, 2010


I see I apparently failed to make my point effectively, which was intended to be an illustration of harriet vane's point above that the guy in the anecdote was not engaging in the sort of uncivil insults ("being a dick") discussed in the linked talk.
posted by The World Famous at 10:11 AM on August 18, 2010


Guess I shouldn't have bothered.

Dawkins and Hitchens (among many, many others) have amply demonstrated that "being a dick" can get your message out to millions of people who'll read your #1 best-seller book, follow your blog, and watch you on TV. Now that they've done so, and entirely changed the battlefield to atheist advantage, we're supposed to believe that this is the time to "rule out one tactic, 'being a dick', because it hasn't had a high success rate"?

Um, yes it has. It has. The fact that atheism is a mainstream issue now, as opposed to twenty or even ten years ago, is a direct result of a handful of "dicks" who weren't willing to meet their opponents with defensive non-confrontation every time. I think it's more than reasonable to suggest that "being a dick" has had a much higher success rate than anything else in recent years. And yeah, maybe you're right -- maybe many of the direct targets of the dickery aren't sticking around long enough to get the message -- but everyone else is. Hand grenades are pretty dickish that way... but that's why they work.

So now that religious people are talking about atheism and even addressing it as a threat, you think it's "tactical" for atheists to revert to treating religion like it's conversational radium? Why? Why shouldn't we have "dicks" tossing hand grenades and "civil" snipers making individual arguments toward those who stick around?

Good tactics are varied and flexible. They don't get "ruled out" according to one-size-fits-all aphorisms before the general even sees the map; they don't involve avoiding mud on the battlefield, even if going through the mud might lead to victory, simply because mud is unpleasant.
posted by vorfeed at 10:13 AM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


The World Famous: Is this turning into a "no true dickwad" conversation? Because Dawkins usually isn't a dick according to the standards of the presentation either.

If your point is that we shouldn't act like exaggerated caricatures, well yes, I agree and will go further that we shouldn't run off cliffs chasing birds or beat people up with wooden mallets pulled out of our pockets either. I don't know what this has to do with actual atheists who are generally mild mannered until someone demonstrates contempt like you just did.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:34 AM on August 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


I see I apparently failed to make my point effectively, which was intended to be an illustration of harriet vane's point above that the guy in the anecdote was not engaging in the sort of uncivil insults ("being a dick") discussed in the linked talk.

I picked a mild example for a reason -- because I've seen plenty of atheists get called-out for "offensiveness" simply for calling religion "stupid". Far more than I've seen get called out for behavior similar to your straw-man, actually.

And the elephant in the room here is that people who "get defensive about him being such a dick" often come around once they calm down. I've had some really dickish things said to me -- things that even made me cry -- which nonetheless changed my mind and altered my behavior over the long run. For example, I was dishonest once, and someone who knew about it called me out right in front of my friends, in a very uncivil and insulting way. "If you weren't so delusional, you wouldn't try to help us in such a moronic way" actually comes pretty close to the phrasing used, with "delusional" and "moronic" swapped out for other insults. I got super-defensive about it at the time, and I felt hurt and pissed off for a couple days afterward, but you know what? I didn't do that again. No amount of "civil discussion" about how doing that was bad changed my behavior, but a good sharp shock from a peer sure as hell did.

And you know, I still think the guy who did it is a dick. So what? He did me a favor, and I owe that dick a drink.

The point of these anecdote isn't that uncivil insults always work no matter how they're used. The point is that they can be effective, and that telling ourselves that they "don't work" or "haven't had a high success rate" is self-defeating. They do work. They do have a high success rate. Anybody who's ever been out in public knows this, and the fact that we're arguing over this with regards to religion, but not with regards to anything else, suggests that this argument is really about something other than civility and/or success rates.
posted by vorfeed at 10:55 AM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Dawkins and Hitchens (among many, many others) have amply demonstrated that "being a dick" can get your message out to millions of people who'll read your #1 best-seller book, follow your blog, and watch you on TV. Now that they've done so, and entirely changed the battlefield to atheist advantage, we're supposed to believe that this is the time to "rule out one tactic, 'being a dick', because it hasn't had a high success rate"?

Hey, so has Ann Coulter.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:57 AM on August 18, 2010


Because Dawkins usually isn't a dick according to the standards of the presentation either.

I agree. Dawkins usually isn't a dick. And I actually enjoy and agree with quite a bit of what I've read of his and what I've heard him say.

I don't know what this has to do with actual atheists who are generally mild mannered until someone demonstrates contempt like you just did.

Most atheists I know (and I know a lot) are not dicks at all. For example, KirkJobSluder, I don't think you've been a dick at all in this thread. And vorfeed, in spite of his passionate advocacy of uncivil discourse as a means of persuasion, has not really acted like a dick in this thread - and I'm starting to see his point as a result of his civil discourse. In fact, I would estimate that the percentage of atheist dicks I know is somewhat lower than the number of religious dicks I know (though that may be because I know far more religious people than atheists). The point not that atheists are dicks - they're not dicks. The point is that nobody should act like a dick.

When you say that I demonstrated contempt, I'm not sure what you're referring to. I did not intend to, and I have no contempt for you or anyone else here.

a direct result of a handful of "dicks" who weren't willing to meet their opponents with defensive non-confrontation every time.

Have you still not listened to the talk? "Don't be a dick," per the linked talk, does not mean "only meet your opponents with defensive non-confrontation."

Why shouldn't we have "dicks" tossing hand grenades and "civil" snipers making individual arguments toward those who stick around?

If part of the point of converting people away from religion is to make the world a less hostile place in general by removing a hostile element that causes contention, doesn't "tossing hand grenades" of incivility sort of contradict that purpose, at least a little bit?

vorfeed, I have an honest question (really, a few questions) for you - both tactical and normative:

First, some background. While I am very interested in scientific inquiry and skepticism, I am not an atheist. I have closely-held religious beliefs and, by definition, I believe that I am right and that anyone with contradictory beliefs is incorrect. My beliefs are constantly changing, which I believe is a necessary aspect of any belief system. Personally (and notwithstanding my religion's general belief to the contrary), I don't have much interest in converting people or convincing them that they are wrong and I am right. In fact, the only people who I generally try to convince that my beliefs are more correct than theirs are people within my own faith who I think are missing the point or misunderstanding the true doctrines of the religion. Moreover, I fully accept that my closely-held religious beliefs are unsupported by scientific evidence and that they cannot be empirically proved. Nevertheless, vorfeed, I am absolutely convinced, on a deeply-personal level, that my beliefs are as correct as they can be at any given moment, and that your opinion (I assume you're an atheist) regarding religious belief, combined with your personal philosophy of uncivil evangelism, are not only flat-out wrong but are actively harmful to society. However, unlike many religious people, I am always open to reasoned discussion and I am open to consideration of information and arguments from you or anyone else.

With that in mind, how would you suggest I behave in discussions regarding atheism, religious faith, skepticism, and the like?

If I get in a discussion with you, for example, wherein you attempt to convince me that my religious beliefs are wrong and/or harmful to society, how should I behave, both in terms of tactical strategy and in terms of benefitting society through my behavior? (Note: If I were to simply concede that you are right and abandon my beliefs without thorough examination and analysis of available information and argument, I wouldn't actually be converted to skepticism, so quick acquiesence and conversion aren't an option.)

Should I resort to personal insults, profanity, calling you an idiot, telling you that you are delusional, and other behavior of the specific sort identified by Phil Plait as "being a dick?"

What is more likely to convince you that you are wrong and I am right? Rational discourse, or name calling?

And finally, isn't the whole point of skepticism to arrive at conclusions and interpretations of reality by thorough rational, impartial analysis and subjecting claims to systematic investigation, rather than by to be persuaded by intimidation or negative social pressure?
posted by The World Famous at 11:00 AM on August 18, 2010


If part of the point of converting people away from religion is to make the world a less hostile place in general by removing a hostile element that causes contention, doesn't "tossing hand grenades" of incivility sort of contradict that purpose, at least a little bit?

Yes, that follows. However, "part of the point of converting people away from religion is to make the world a less hostile place in general" is not a given. Again, I don't have a problem with hostility per se, nor do I believe that "nobody should act like a dick", so I have no problem with the use of incivil hand grenades.

Have you still not listened to the talk? "Don't be a dick," per the linked talk, does not mean "only meet your opponents with defensive non-confrontation."

I've listened to the talk. I don't agree; I think his approach does amount to "only meet your opponents with defensive non-confrontation" in practice, and I've already explained why. All it takes is for people to react to other modes of discourse as if they were dickish -- which they already do on a constant basis -- and voila, you're left with defensive non-confrontation.

With that in mind, how would you suggest I behave in discussions regarding atheism, religious faith, skepticism, and the like?

However you choose to. Really, this is not a difficult answer.

If you insist upon some sort of moral declaration, here it is: I think we should own our actions and their consequences, rather than expecting ourselves and others to conform to simplistic rules of conduct. To extend the war metaphor a bit, tone matters little on the battlefield: one's actions can be courageous yet futile, or they can be craven yet successful. Only a foolish leader declares that he will always reward the former and condemn the latter -- when you do that, you become the Redcoats or Field Marshall Haig, always doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. As with Haig, sometimes it even works out... but the idea that this is the only way to fight is blinkered at best.

And finally, isn't the whole point of skepticism to arrive at conclusions and interpretations of reality by thorough rational, impartial analysis and subjecting claims to systematic investigation, rather than by to be persuaded by intimidation or negative social pressure?

More-or-less. However, humans aren't robots, and pretending as if "intimidation or negative social pressure" can't eventually lead to "rational, impartial analysis and subjecting claims to systematic investigation" flies in the face of available evidence.

If the point of skepticism is to arrive at conclusions and interpretations of reality by thorough rational, impartial analysis and subjecting claims to systematic investigation, then we have to admit that "being a dick" often works. We can't simply declare that dickishness "hasn't had a high success rate", when we have ample evidence of its apparent success.
posted by vorfeed at 11:44 AM on August 18, 2010


Why extend the war metaphor? The linked talk suggests that we are not in a war, and rather than warriors, diplomats are needed.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:49 AM on August 18, 2010


The point is that nobody should act like a dick.

And yet, it seems there's not a cottage industry in publishing right now that people, in general, shouldn't be dicks.

When you say that I demonstrated contempt, I'm not sure what you're referring to. I did not intend to, and I have no contempt for you or anyone else here.

You used a ludicrously exaggerated caricature to make your point.

With that in mind, how would you suggest I behave in discussions regarding atheism, religious faith, skepticism, and the like?

Talk about your own experiences, don't try to make claims about my life and relationships, don't try to generalize about atheist thought systems, and don't pull tone arguments is a nice starting place.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:55 AM on August 18, 2010


shakespherian: Why extend the war metaphor? The linked talk suggests that we are not in a war, and rather than warriors, diplomats are needed.

I'm a big fan of cultural exchange, what did you think of the second linked piece which suggests that religious groups should embrace modern science as theologically beautiful.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:01 PM on August 18, 2010


However you choose to. Really, this is not a difficult answer.

I don't understand. What do you think would be the most effective way, if I had any desire to do so (which I do not), for me to convince you that my religious beliefs are right and that your atheism is wrong?

If the point of skepticism is to arrive at conclusions and interpretations of reality by thorough rational, impartial analysis and subjecting claims to systematic investigation, then we have to admit that "being a dick" often works.

Often works at accomplishing what end? Do you want people to become skeptics, or do you just want to shame them into joining your team? Are they not delusional fools if they allow intimidation or negative social pressure to influence their interpretation of reality?

You used a ludicrously exaggerated caricature to make your point.

I modified the anecdote so that there could be no question the person was actually being a dick. I have no contempt for vorfeed - the person who related the anecdote about being sharply warned about danger.

Talk about your own experiences, don't try to make claims about my life and relationships, don't try to generalize about atheist thought systems, and don't pull tone arguments is a nice starting place.

I agree, KirkJobSluder. And I appreciate that you generally practice what you preach in that regard.
posted by The World Famous at 12:06 PM on August 18, 2010


what did you think of the second linked piece

I was a big fan of the argument that our employment of the term 'god' should necessarily change as we learn more about the natural world (The more we learn about the nature of the Universe, if we're not also updating what we mean when we use the word "God", we may have understandings of the divine that are so out of touch with reality as to no longer be life-giving.). I don't really follow the jump that he makes from 'supernatural and unnatural are synonyms' to (paraphrased) 'God is natural systems.' It's possible I missed something in the article, but I saw zero argument for the jump other than the flimsy 'people don't like unnatural things because they're weird, so let's not have God be that.'

I definitely agree that religious groups should embrace modern science as theologically beautiful, because modern science is beautiful anyway, and religious groups should regard everything through a theological lens-- and the only alternative is to demonize science, which is idiotic. I wasn't too enamored of the article, though.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:22 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


How timely - I just this morning listened to a two part Point of Inquiry interview with Rev. Michael Dowd (at the time hosted by DJ Grothe)

Part 1
Part 2
posted by mincus at 1:25 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why extend the war metaphor? The linked talk suggests that we are not in a war, and rather than warriors, diplomats are needed.

Again, I don't agree. I think we need warriors and diplomats, just as any nation does, and I think limiting our options to one or the other is a mistake. Half the power of diplomacy is that it's a nicer alternative to war -- this has no effect if one side knows the other won't fight.

It's fine to have "speak softly" as a general approach, but as the saying goes, it's best accompanied by a big stick.

I don't understand. What do you think would be the most effective way, if I had any desire to do so (which I do not), for me to convince you that my religious beliefs are right and that your atheism is wrong?

For me personally, I haven't yet encountered an effective argument. If I had, then it follows that I wouldn't be an atheist anymore, doesn't it?

For me in the abstract: if we were arguing, and you wanted to win the argument, then there might be several effective ways to win. The idea that there's one most effective way to win for any abstract-me is ineffective, because all the abstract-mes will quickly learn to counter with whatever's strongest against that particular tactic.

To put it another way: you're basically asking me for the most effective way to beat Protoss as Zerg. The correct answer isn't LOLZ LING RUSH WORKS EVERY TIEM BRO, no matter how much you love those zerglings -- the correct answer is "that depends on your own skill with various tactics, on your opponent's skill with various tactics, and on what your opponent is actually doing".

Anybody who goes at an argument with a one-size-fits-all approach is going to get owned, owned, owned until they wise up. I mean, why do you think we're still arguing over this 2000+ years later, if a single "most effective way to convince you that my religious beliefs are right and that your atheism is wrong" could be discovered?
posted by vorfeed at 1:25 PM on August 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh,yeah, and:

Often works at accomplishing what end? Do you want people to become skeptics, or do you just want to shame them into joining your team? Are they not delusional fools if they allow intimidation or negative social pressure to influence their interpretation of reality?

Of course not. They're human. Nothing about how one is initially motivated to develop a skeptical "interpretation of reality" makes it more or less skeptical, and "fake it 'til you make it" is an old, old concept. Given the choice between having people fake religion or fake atheism, I'll take the latter, thank you.

I would personally prefer a world in which people make up their own mind, and don't simply follow the herd... but it's undeniable that herd tactics are a better way to plant this idea than standing on a lonely mountaintop shouting into the wind. There's a paradox involved in trying to convince people to think for themselves, just as Zeno observed a paradox in a footrace... but only a fool would conclude that no one ever wins the real-world race.
posted by vorfeed at 1:58 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's a paradox involved in trying to convince people to think for themselves

Only if you are trying to get them to think a specific thing for themselves.
posted by The World Famous at 3:02 PM on August 18, 2010


Only if you are trying to get them to think a specific thing for themselves.

You're assuming that "think for yourself" isn't a "specific thing". It is, though, and at some point it must confront itself -- the thinker must think "think for yourself" for his or her own self. Otherwise it'll never be much more than half-digested dogma.

Any "skeptical" system which doesn't turn on itself at some point isn't skeptical; it's just another a one-size-fits-all approach in a slightly larger size.
posted by vorfeed at 4:03 PM on August 18, 2010


No, I'm just observing that you seem to be saying that the first step to getting someone to think for themself is to get them to agree with a specific conclusion that you think they should arrive at if they do think for themself (i.e. atheism).
posted by The World Famous at 4:09 PM on August 18, 2010


Again, "think for yourself" is no more or less a "specific conclusion" than is atheism. You can't just bootstrap it out of nothing; no matter what, the first step to getting people to think for themselves is always going to be "to get them to agree with a specific conclusion that you think they should arrive at if they do think for themselves". Even (perhaps especially) if all you ever tell them is "think for yourself". Did they think of that for themselves? No, because you told them. Well, there you go.

Learning to create anything for yourself involves Zeno's Paradox writ large, whether the subject is art or atheism, yet being perpetually only halfway original never stops anyone from making the leap over the endless gap when they're ready; this only seems self-contradictory if you have little familiarity with human beings and the way they grow and learn.
posted by vorfeed at 5:24 PM on August 18, 2010


Again, "think for yourself" is no more or less a "specific conclusion" than is atheism.

I'm not sure what you mean by that. I wonder if you and I just are talking past each other with regard to the definitions of skepticism and atheism. I was under the impression that atheism is generally the rejection of belief in the existence of deities or, more narrowly, the position that there are no deities. And I was also under the impression that skepticism (what I interpreted your colloquial "think for themselves" to refer to) is a far broader notion, generally involving an approach or methodology to interpreting reality, rather than the embracing of any specific conclusion that may or may not be arrived at by way of that methodology.

I interpreted your assertion that people could (or, indeed, must) be convinced by intimidation and negative peer pressure to embrace atheism and then to eventually change so that they become skeptics as proposing that, if people can first be persuaded - by any means necessary - to agree with the conclusion that you have reached through skepticism, that they will eventually become skeptical, as well.

It appears to me (and I apologize if I'm misinterpreting you) that it is more important to you that people agree with your atheist conclusion than it is that they act autonomously - skeptically - in determining for themselves whether or not to be atheists by way of the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or intellectual caution. Maybe I'm reading you wrong, but you seem to be a dogmatic atheist - not a skeptic.

the first step to getting people to think for themselves is always going to be "to get them to agree with a specific conclusion that you think they should arrive at if they do think for themselves".

So, faith, then? That sounds a lot like a leap of faith to me. In fact, it sounds exactly like faith. If atheism is correct (and let's assume that it is), then one need not first accept atheism on faith in order to later arrive at that conclusion through rational analysis. If your have to get people to believe in it without any evidence before they can be capable of talking themselves into believing it on their own, then it is religion - not atheism. Religion is what requires leaps of faith and conclusions without proof or analysis. Atheism is not like that (in my estimation, anyway).

Are you, vorfeed, a skeptic, or are you just a faithful atheist perpetually convincing yourself of that conclusion, having decided to be an atheist before you even did the analysis? Again, assume that you're absolutely right to be an atheist and that there are no deities. Did you really have to have first accepted that fact on faith before you could come to a realization on your own that it was correct?
posted by The World Famous at 6:03 PM on August 18, 2010


It is not "more important to me that people agree with my atheist conclusion than it is that they act autonomously - skeptically". I simply find that the conclusion tends to arise from the process, and vice versa. Maybe that's not ideologically pure, but it's true in practice, and denying it is a fool's errand.

We're talking about changing people's minds, not about formal logic. That's why I mentioned art. Why don't you go ask Bob Ross if it is "more important to him that people agree with his happy-tree conclusion than it is that they act autonomously - creatively"?

You're drawing a really simplistic dichotomy here.

So, faith, then? That sounds a lot like a leap of faith to me. In fact, it sounds exactly like faith. If atheism is correct (and let's assume that it is), then one need not first accept atheism on faith in order to later arrive at that conclusion through rational analysis.

Again, you're assuming that I'm saying one "needs" to accept atheism before atheism makes sense. That's not necessarily true -- there are many ways to get there, and plenty of people do get there through rational analysis.

However, no one ever said the proof had to come before the hypothesis! It should be obvious that it's fine to have an idea before you prove the idea is correct; this is where the vast majority of proofs come from. Rational analysis differs from "faith" because it requires abandoning ideas if they've been disproved, but it does not require that one have positive proof in order to have ideas in the first place. Hell, almost all of mathematics rests upon axioms we don't have positive proof for, but I hope we can agree that mathematics is not "exactly like faith".

Are you, vorfeed, a skeptic, or are you just a faithful atheist perpetually convincing yourself of that conclusion, having decided to be an atheist before you even did the analysis? Again, assume that you're absolutely right to be an atheist and that there are no deities. Did you really have to have first accepted that fact on faith before you could come to a realization on your own that it was correct?

This seems like a bizarre question to me. I was born an atheist; I have never believed in deities. My parents never told me there wasn't a God -- in fact, I had a children's Bible from a pretty young age, among many other books -- but they never told me there was one, either. So no, I guess I didn't accept the fact of atheism before I could come to a realization on my own that it was correct; that realization had to have come from me, because it didn't come from elsewhere.

That said, I certainly had no adequate proof for it back then, just like most other facts I learned before the age of 8 or so. Proving it to my satisfaction came much later. This does not disprove my atheism, or make it somehow impure, any more than my belief in the distributed property of multiplication is impure or disproved because I believed it before I could prove it.

Again, it is not a bad thing to hold a hypothesis before you've proved it. This is one of the cornerstones of reason; am I supposed to be ashamed of it?
posted by vorfeed at 8:18 PM on August 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


The second article had a bit of a voice problem that irritated me, and I'm not convinced of its historical conclusion, but I'll give it points for raising the issue.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:43 PM on August 18, 2010


The conversation has moved on now, but for the record, I don't think Dawkins has behaved like a dick. He's forcefully argued his point with as many people as he could, he's used his platform as a well-known scientist to get a better hearing for his points on religion, and he hasn't backed down when a lot of people really wished he would.

But I've also seen him behave with restraint when the situation called for it*. He avoids strawmen and other logical fallacies (even with people who wouldn't spot them), and although he uses provocative language when describing his opinions, he's careful to separate the beliefs from the person who holds them. He fights, but he fights fair and tries to limit himself to opponents who can match him intellectually or those who seek out the fight.

He's Darwin's Bulldog, not Darwin's Dickhead. Perhaps our disagreement is more about what the definition of dick is.

*In Australia we've got a TV show called Q&A, where a panel of guests takes questions from a live audience. He was a guest at the same time as a politician who is the sole elected representative of an openly religious party. When the audience asked about his opinions, he stated them clearly and calmly, and when the politician brought up the subject of Young Earth creationism, he was clearly stunned but responded politely but dismissively instead of turning it into a heated debate. The show wasn't all about him, the politician was obviously not very smart, he let it go. But he was in Australia for AtheistCon and had given a blistering talk, and been all over the news doing what he always does.
posted by harriet vane at 7:03 AM on August 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Don’t Be a Dick, Part 2: links
posted by mrducts at 9:29 AM on August 19, 2010


I was under the impression that atheism is generally the rejection of belief in the existence of deities or, more narrowly, the position that there are no deities.

Herein lies the fundamental problem. Anyone can define themselves into the necessary belief in a deity. If you define the self-aware universe as a deity (as Parmenides irrefutably sez: "Reality itself is a thinking thing, and the object of its own thinking."), voila, there's a deity right there. Or if you define "nature" (a slightly different take) as a deity, then, voila, there's 'nother un. You have to be very specific when you talk to an atheist, just as when you talk to religious types, about what exactly you mean when you say deity. Most atheists are atheistic in the sense of a mainstream religious context, in my experience. For me and I believe the majority of atheists, the idea of a supernatural being that willfully can bend the laws of the observable universe and strategically interferes in the affairs of humans is, in broad terms, what is rejected. We are more agnostic when it comes to the non-anthropomorphic conceptualizations of a deity. I think this confusion and the plethora of potential definitions of a deity lead to many heartbreakingly useless conversations.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:38 AM on August 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


There isn't a single unified atheism, for much of the same reason that there's not a single unified theism. There's agnostic atheists via Russel's Teapot, UU Humanists, Religious Humanists within faith traditions (which may or may not be a description of Dowd), antitheists, apatheists, ignostics, Marxists, Existentialists, Randoid Objectivists (separate from objectivism in philosophy which is a completely different beast), Secular Humanists, Huxlian Agnostics, Spencerian Agnostics, the scientific narrative as myth folks, and probably at least a half-dozen other flavors out there.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:49 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Have we figured out whose dick is bigger yet?
posted by five fresh fish at 2:12 PM on August 19, 2010


Again, you're assuming that I'm saying one "needs" to accept atheism before atheism makes sense.

Yes, that's what I thought you meant when you said "no matter what, the first step to getting people to think for themselves is always going to be "to get them to agree with a specific conclusion that you think they should arrive at if they do think for themselves" and when you said "Nothing about how one is initially motivated to develop a skeptical "interpretation of reality" makes it more or less skeptical, and "fake it 'til you make it" is an old, old concept."

But as I said above, that was merely my understanding of what you were saying, and I again apologize if I misunderstood you.

Why don't you go ask Bob Ross if it is "more important to him that people agree with his happy-tree conclusion than it is that they act autonomously - creatively"?

If Bob Ross was criticizing the talk of a noted skeptic who gave a speech at a gathering of skeptics about the goal of convincing people to become skeptics, I would definitely ask him that.

However, no one ever said the proof had to come before the hypothesis!

I don't think anyone - particularly skeptics or atheists - has ever suggested that the existence or non-existence of God constitutes a hypothesis that can be proved. Richard Dawkins' extremely reasonable position, for example, is that, in the absence of evidence, the existence of God is so extraordinarily unlikely compared to non-existence that it is ridiculous to even entertain the idea (this position echoes Russel's teapot, which Dawkins references). He does not suggest that atheism is a testable hypothesis, but rather that where there is no hypothesis to test, it is wrong to jump to anything other than the most likely conclusion. That's where skepticism comes into play, and the manner in which many skeptics arrive at atheism.

I was born an atheist; I have never believed in deities. My parents never told me there wasn't a God -- in fact, I had a children's Bible from a pretty young age, among many other books -- but they never told me there was one, either. So no, I guess I didn't accept the fact of atheism before I could come to a realization on my own that it was correct; that realization had to have come from me, because it didn't come from elsewhere.

That is perfectly reasonable.

Proving it to my satisfaction came much later. This does not disprove my atheism, or make it somehow impure, any more than my belief in the distributed property of multiplication is impure or disproved because I believed it before I could prove it.

I never said that anything "disproves [your] atheism." I don't dispute that you're an atheist, and I even went so far as to assume that atheism is 100% correct. I said that I suspect that, while you're an atheist, you're really not a skeptic, based in large part on your advocacy of being a "dick" in order to convince people to unskeptically convert to atheism, with "thinking for themselves" being a secondary goal.

As KirkJobSluder notes, there is no single flavor of atheism. It's fine if you're not the same sort of atheist as Phil Plait or as any other person. Indeed, there is no single flavor of religious belief, either. But I do wish that every atheist or religious person who advocates incivility and conversion through intimidation and negative social pressure would convert to some other sort of atheism or religious belief. I, personally, think the world would be a better place if people didn't intentionally insult, intimidate, and pressure people into beliefs. That is, I admit, a normative judgment on my part.

Again, it is not a bad thing to hold a hypothesis before you've proved it. This is one of the cornerstones of reason; am I supposed to be ashamed of it?

First, I never said that anything you're doing is a "bad thing." I do think that being a dick is normatively bad. But, though you're advocating it, I don't think you're actually being a dick here. Second, atheism is not a hypothesis - where skepticism is concerned, it is the recognition of the absence of any testable hypothesis and the refusal to reach a conclusion in light of that absence. Third, I don't care if you're ashamed or not of anything. I'm not criticizing your atheism. Indeed, I think that you are perfectly reasonable to be an atheist. I'm disagreeing with your advocacy of intimidation and negative social pressure in lieu of reason and skepticism as a tactic to convert people to your beliefs.
posted by The World Famous at 2:43 PM on August 19, 2010


Yes, that's what I thought you meant when you said "no matter what, the first step to getting people to think for themselves is always going to be "to get them to agree with a specific conclusion that you think they should arrive at if they do think for themselves" [...]

Those statements aren't about the relative importance of atheism. They're about the fact that "getting people to think for themselves" is a somewhat self-contradictory mission. Getting people. To think for themselves. Do you really not see the problem there, even after all I've said? If not, I find it pretty amusing that you're telling me I'm not really a skeptic.

All I'm saying is that adopting atheism tends to lead to skepticism, and vice versa. Nothing about that means that atheism is "more important" than skepticism.

Your insistence that skepticism has to be the primary goal in everything a skeptic does is a false dichotomy, anyway. There are any number of things skeptics might conclude and then advocate to others, using many different tactics. The idea that advocating the use of negative social pressure as a tactic in debate necessarily means that someone is "really not a skeptic" is laughable. Hell, Phil Plait uses negative social pressure throughout his talk. Given that the talk's conclusion is "don't be a dick", one could even argue that convincing the audience to accept civility through negative social pressure is the talk's primary goal, and that convincing them to think for themselves is only secondary...

I don't think anyone - particularly skeptics or atheists - has ever suggested that the existence or non-existence of God constitutes a hypothesis that can be proved.

It's perfectly clear what I was talking about in that paragraph, and it's not the idea that one can conclusively prove whether or not there's a God. It's the idea that rational analysis does not necessarily require positive proof, nor does it require the analysis of an idea to come before the idea itself.

Likewise, I wasn't claiming that atheism literally was a hypothesis. I was making an analogy. Clearly, you know what those are, since you yourself said that to have an idea before one has "later arrived at that conclusion through rational analysis" was "faith".

I never said that anything "disproves [your] atheism." I don't dispute that you're an atheist, and I even went so far as to assume that atheism is 100% correct. I said that I suspect that, while you're an atheist, you're really not a skeptic, based in large part on your advocacy of being a "dick" in order to convince people to unskeptically convert to atheism, with "thinking for themselves" being a secondary goal.

Again, thinking for themselves isn't a secondary goal. I already told you that very clearly, several times. If you're not willing to take my word for it, fine, but that refusal would seem to suggest that your "suspicion" has more to do with you than it does with me.

Like I said above, "no use being a camel when you can be a lion, or better yet, a child". The child -- "thinking for themselves" -- is the primary goal, and the lion -- atheism, in this case -- is a rejection of pre-existing ideas, which often comes first.

I'm disagreeing with your advocacy of intimidation and negative social pressure in lieu of reason and skepticism as a tactic to convert people to your beliefs.

I never said that "being a dick" should be used in lieu of reason and skepticism. I suggested that its use should not necessarily be discounted, and I said that it is one weapon in an arsenal which also includes reason and skepticism.
posted by vorfeed at 11:34 PM on August 19, 2010


Have we figured out whose dick is bigger yet?

Yours, of course.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:40 AM on August 20, 2010


Are we measuring by inches of thread wankery, or inches of flesh? I'll 'fess to the latter.

I don't think I've seen two people talk past each other so … missingly, as in this thread. Venn diagram it, and it's two non-overlapping circles.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:52 AM on August 20, 2010


Yeah, I noticed that some time ago. But there are more than two people in the room, so to speak, so hopefully someone else is getting something out of it.
posted by vorfeed at 10:34 AM on August 20, 2010


Yeah, we're totally talking past each other. But at least we're not being dicks, I guess. Or I hope I'm not, anyway. I don't think vorfeed is.
posted by The World Famous at 11:31 AM on August 20, 2010


Well good gods, if you know you're talking past each other, why don't you either (a) stop trying to convince one another or (b) boil your points down to a single simple sentence so that you can both agree on what you want to talk about?
posted by five fresh fish at 12:36 PM on August 20, 2010


why don't you either (a) stop trying to convince one another or (b) boil your points down to a single simple sentence so that you can both agree on what you want to talk about?

(a) I'm not inclined to stop trying to convince people not to intentionally be aggressive, rude, and insulting evangelists. And I don't even know what, if anything, vorfeed is trying to convince me of.
(b) Here goes - it may be a bit of a run-on: I agree with Phil Plait's talk, I also think being a dick is normatively bad, and I also think that convincing people to change their beliefs by being a dick and shaming them into it is exactly the sort of evangelism that atheists of every stripe - but especially skeptics - should oppose.
posted by The World Famous at 12:59 PM on August 20, 2010


(Also, I think it's hilarious that TAM8 was held at a Casino.)
posted by The World Famous at 1:22 PM on August 20, 2010


I disagree with Phil Plait's talk, because I think "being a dick" is simply one mode of communication among many, and one which has proven effective at changing people's minds; I see no inherent contradiction between being an atheist and/or a skeptic and convincing people to change their beliefs using social pressure.

Looks like we'll have to agree to disagree.
posted by vorfeed at 1:55 PM on August 20, 2010


I guess we owe you a drink or something, five fresh fish.
posted by The World Famous at 1:59 PM on August 20, 2010


Truly, you guys deserve the drinks.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:28 PM on August 20, 2010


This is tangentially related, in that it's a Christian arguing that Christianity needs to embrace science.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:20 PM on August 20, 2010


Don't Be A Dick, Part 3: The Aftermath. Indeed.
posted by harriet vane at 1:45 AM on August 24, 2010


I rather like this response:

407. Sister Chromatid Says:
August 23rd, 2010 at 6:07 pm

The problem with trying to get people to be civil via a “don’t be a dick” speech is that the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that the biggest dicks are the least likely to identify themselves as the dicks in Phil’s speech, while less dickish folks might wonder if he was talking about them.


Plait's vagueness about what being a dick means and evasions of clarifying his definition puts this into "no true dickwad" territory.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:53 AM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've been thinking a lot more about this, and I think that Phil Plait is likely morally and tactically correct, but strategically wrong.

The reason is because "don't be a dick" has become the universal response to just about anything to do with atheism or skepticism. As we've seen in his own comments thread, we're dicks if we protect first amendment rights in regards to church and state. We're dicks if we deign to comment on gay rights. We just had an "agnostic manifesto" which can be summed up as "atheists are dicks."

Giving a speech based on the premise that a very ugly and nasty stereotype which is used to shut skeptics and atheists out of these discussions is correct isn't helping.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:48 PM on August 25, 2010


KirkJobSluder, I don't understand when you say that you think Plait was vague about what being a dick means and that he engaged in "evasions of clarifying his definition." He repeatedly explained exactly what he meant in his talk and his subsequent posts.
posted by The World Famous at 4:53 PM on August 25, 2010


Well, the clearest we have is:

I think that way when the person belittles their opponent, uses obviously inflammatory language, or overly aggressively gets in their face.

Which I still find to be overly vague. His examples are so absurdly exaggerated that I have trouble taking them seriously. And his followup posts offer little more than, "I'm not talking about that," "just read the internet," and "here's a bunch of second-hand anecdotes." So no, he has not clarified much of anything.

And looking at internet discourse as evidence is a failure for a mess of reasons. We've known for about 35 years now that norms of face-to-face and internet discourse are radically different.

If we go by his examples, his admonition applies to a handful of people who won't listen anyway. If we go by his principles, then we're talking about an impossible balancing act between two equally valuable norms.

And this is aside from the problem that it's irresponsible of him to promulgate a nasty and mean-spirited stereotype.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:19 PM on August 25, 2010


And this is aside from the problem that it's irresponsible of him to promulgate a nasty and mean-spirited stereotype.

I don't understand this. By telling people not to act in a particular bad way, he's promulgating a stereotype that people act in that particular way?

Moreover, if in your estimation he has not clearly stated what he means by "being a dick," then what "nasty and mean-spirited stereotype" is he promulgating?

Well, the clearest we have is:

I think that way when the person belittles their opponent, uses obviously inflammatory language, or overly aggressively gets in their face.


That is, indeed, quite clear. He also gave specific examples - e.g. calling people "idiots," etc. I'm not sure how much more clear he could be without unnecessarily narrowing the scope to something underinclusive.
posted by The World Famous at 5:27 PM on August 25, 2010


The World Famous: I don't understand this. By telling people not to act in a particular bad way, he's promulgating a stereotype that people act in that particular way?

Certainly. To use an analogy, Andrew Sullivan made his career scolding gay men for engaging in unsafe sex outside of a committed-long term relationship. And he had a pretty bright and rising career in the world of conservative pundits by very loudly supporting the stereotype that gay men are sexually irresponsible. Of course he had to abandon this when he was caught soliciting semi-anonymous bareback sex through the same institutions he was attacking.

The premise of the speech is that skeptics (later clarified as atheist skeptics, as he seems to have little problem with inflammatory language in regards to moon landing doubters) routinely have a problem here. When my civility, friendliness, "spirituality" (for lack of a better word), and good will are taken for granted, then there's no need to talk about tone. But it's not and thus, I'm put into the impossible position of proving I'm not a dick when I talk about religious issues that are important to me.

That is, indeed, quite clear. He also gave specific examples - e.g. calling people "idiots," etc. I'm not sure how much more clear he could be without unnecessarily narrowing the scope to something underinclusive.

I don't think it is because I was just accused of belittling someone for using the word "merely" in a sentence. But this is why I think his position is a "no true dickwad" fallacy. He wants to right to say, "but not that skeptic" while insisting that we generally have to work at not being dicks.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:49 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


And I think he does mean well, but I don't take kindly to scolds lecturing me about my diplomacy in regards to friends and family.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:31 PM on August 25, 2010


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