Crybaby theists

November 5, 2009 • 6:45 pm

Shoot me for backsliding.  At the National Times of Australia, Michael Brull goes after “crybaby theists,” those theists who don’t have good arguments for their beliefs and so resort to whining about atheists’ incivility and rudeness (his exemplar is Greg Craven, who published an attack on the New Atheists, also in the Times). Brull argues:

Facing a new attack with an international audience playing close attention, religions have as little rational argument in their favour as ever. There was a time when they could deal with dissent through more draconian measures: the kind that can still be practiced in, say, Saudi Arabia. Having lost the power of the gun in the West, apologists of religion have a new weapon: being offended.

Rather than confronting (say) Dawkins’ arguments with counter-arguments, people like Craven, and many others like him, instead cry out: why are you picking on us? All we want is for you to respect our beliefs. And so, the crybaby theists hide behind the demand for respect, which sounds reasonable enough. . .

. . .The bottom line is that such special pleading is a way for theists to avoid answering their critics. The cry that religious beliefs are not being treated respectfully often demonstrates incredible arrogance and hypocrisy.

Firstly, in a liberal democracy, people should adjust to the prospect of other people finding their views stupid, immoral, pernicious, or any other terrible thing. For example, consider the case of a racist. They may view others with contempt, and members of the targeted minorities might respond with contempt for the views of the racist. Should we demand that victims of racism respect the beliefs of racists? Of course not: we grant the truism that some beliefs are stupid, immoral, pernicious and other terrible things. A liberal democracy cannot function without the possibility of discussing which beliefs are good and which ones are not. Crybaby theists wish to be shielded from the normal rough and tumble of arguments about beliefs. There are people who honestly think religious belief irrational, and find aspects of organised religion troubling. If anything is outrageous, it is the arrogance of religious extremists, here and elsewhere, holding that such views should not be allowed open discussion.

And let it be noted that athiests rarely complain about the tone of theists’ arguments, which are often pretty vitriolic (c.f. Andrew Sullivan on Scientology), except to point out the hypocrisy. Nor do we request kid-glove treatment for our own atheism. We’re perfectly happy going hammer and tongs with our opponents in the marketplace of ideas:

Indeed, no atheists that I know of actually suggest that theists should “respect” their beliefs and stop arguing for theism. Atheists have simply taken up arguing their point of view: against religious belief.

Indeed, but do read both Brull and Craven’s pieces in their entirety. The striking fact about crybaby theists (and their nonbeliever counterparts, faitheists like Barbara Forrest mentioned in Dan Jones’s New Statesman piece) is that they rarely deal with the substantive arguments of atheists. No new arguments for the existence of gods have arisen in centuries, and their refutations are well known. You rarely see a crybaby theist mounting a vigorous defense of the Ontological Argument,  the Argument from Design, or the Argument from Morality. All their complaints are either about how mean we are, or that we are politically hamhanded and should stop saying that religion is irrational, or that we simply don’t understand theology in the first place. And faitheists are loath to admit that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have adduced or reprised really substantive arguments against the existence of gods. Even though they must agree with some of these arguments (they are atheists after all!), they pass this over in silence in their rush to accuse the atheists of nastiness.

When I see this, I know that we’ve won on the substance. It’s been pointed out that the same arguments against tone were used against the civil rights movement and in-your-face gay-rights activists. (Now I know that someone is going to beef that religion is not the same thing as racism or homophobia. Granted — although all are based on irrational premises –but that’s not the point.) The “tone” card is always played by those on the losing side — those who have exhausted their supply of rational arguments.

32 thoughts on “Crybaby theists

  1. Let’s not forget about the early feminists. Demure they weren’t, and it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that no change will ever happen without confrontational tactics.

    Basically, the faitheists have failed to learn from the lessons of history.

  2. the same arguments against tone were used against the civil rights movement and in-your-face gay-rights activists

    but its the same in some significant ways, in that they both claim divine warrant, and that in some larger sense that social order demands and requires the institution.

    They claim these things, not based on reasons which can withstand argument and debate, but on tradition and authority.

    The big difference is that Religion, unlike racial, gender or sexual attitudes, claims revelation as a justification. Thinking a class of people inferior was never “revealed” … racism at least relies on ideas which must be checked first person by each racist, religion has an extra dimension in that is asks people to sign up for things that they have no way of checking. Jesus died for your sins is so much harder to expose as false than, it is wrong for a white woman to lie with a black man, etc .. etc … .

  3. and that essay by Brull was OUTSTANDING.

    if only dawkins could fight like that guy … someone promote him to the front lines … wherever they are.

    Brull should go do some training for NCSC, you listening america, here is an Aussie lecturing on the truisms of liberal democracy … what a great essay.

  4. I thought that Greg’s piece was so bad as to be laughable for all the wrong reasons … except for one thing that makes me take it more seriously.

    It’s another example where an accusation is made that what we are seeing from Dawkins, etc., or from the likes of Catherine Deveny (who was probably the immediate target), is an expression of hatred.

    Greg Craven is a legal academic, and was quite a good teacher and scholar in his time before he floated up to high-level administrative positions at a relatively early age. He still gets a lot of respect for his legal skills, and he should know better than this.

    Jerry, you’ll recall that I had a bit to say about this aspect at the Burbank conference. Once you start throwing around the accusation that your opponents are motivated, not by strong disagreement with your ideas, or concern about your political influence, but by hatred … well, alarm bells should ring. At that point, you are a long way towards having a legally effective argument for shutting up your opponents by force of law, at least in any jurisdiction that takes Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights seriously.

    The word “hatred”, combined with the good sense of judges in recognising it only when they really see it, is about all that stands between the current situation of relatively free speech for serious thinkers (and indeed for comedians) and someone managing to get The God Delusion banned in a Western democracy. When senior legal academics start to abandon robust good sense on something like this, as Greg Craven has now done in a very public way, it’s a dangerous situation.

    1. So, we have not only alleged speech- or thought-crime (blasphemy), but emotional crime (hatred) as well?

      Call me old fashioned, but whatever happened to criminal “acts”, with a consequence of actual harm instead of just hurt feelings because someone stated the obvious — that their emperor lacked clothing?

  5. Just one quibble, Jerry – the article appeared in The Age, of which the “National Times” is an op-ed section.

    Craven’s piece was as eponymic as you could wish for; is this the face of the new ‘Running Scared’ theism?

  6. I’d just been thinking about the similarities between the gay civil rights movement and new atheism.

    A large part of what the gay community does is actually for gay people and not so much to convince straight people we’re “normal”. A vocal gay rights movement is about raising awareness in the community at large but it’s also about creating a safe space for people, especially young people, who are struggling with their own sexuality and need to see other people like them who’ve made it through to acceptance and have got their back. It also reinforces that homophobia is the disorder, not homosexuality.

    Atheists are another group of people against whom it’s still socially acceptable to be bigoted in western society. We need Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers (and Jerry Coyne) out in front of people making the case that religion *is* superstition and people have had the capacity to be moral upstanding, actualized citizens of society without gods since there have been people. It annoys religionists and faitheists but who cares. It sends a reassuring message to people who may be questioning their faith. We’re here. We’re rational. Get used to it.

    1. We’re here.

      We’re rational. Well, a lot of us make a strong effort to be rational; but some atheists just got tired of being goths, or vampires, or furries. Oh, and don’t get me started on those alt-med people and New Agers and dialectical materialists!

      While technically not required to get used to it, you should understand that there is an extremely low, albeit non-zero, probability that we are not going away.

      P.S. Your babies are delicious!

      1. D’oh!

        While technically not required to get used to it, you should understand that there is an extremely low, albeit non-zero, probability that we are not going away.

  7. We need more people like Brull explaining why we do not need to apologise for going for religion’s jugular. If one uses 9/11 as the starter’s pistol for what we’re doing now, the progress has been astounding and I can’t blame the believers for getting the wind up and using indefensible tactics against us. But they are our opponents in this. Nobody is going to make room for atheists at the table unless the atheists announce “we’re here.” We shouldn’t even expect them to and there’s no such thing as an inaudible announcement, which seems to be what believers and faitheists alike somehow seem to expect of us.

    I think the “crybaby theist” meme needs to be fast-tracked into wide currency a.s.a.p. and it’s not as if we don’t have the people to do it. And I’ll reiterate much more briefly what I said yesterday in a comment over at Ophelia’s: we must be extremely vigorous in laughingly rejecting the propaganda regarding atheist disunity. No, we don’t all agree about how loud to be as atheists. We can respect the believers’ right to express their views and we can respect some atheists’ choice not to be vocal. No one should expect us to show any respect to calls for us to be more quiet. And if that’s our greatest display of disunity, we’re still doing a thousand times better than the literally warring factions that have made up the community of believers for dozens of centuries.

  8. I think there’s a remarkable amount of similarity between theistic society and heterosexist society.

    Both expect the majority position (eg. faith or heterosexuality) to be universal. Both get upset when that position is challenged. Both get very upset when those not in the majority attempt to assert their rights.

    Falling foul of both of those groups, I’m not sure if coming out as a manhugger or deityscoffer is more difficult. However, I do know that such prejudices become less socially acceptable and pronounced as exposure increases, but that discrimination becomes more subtle and insidious.

    Institutional and cultural discrimination are less easily identified and challenged than personal discrimination, and suggesting that organisations need to change can often result in change-resistance and people taking such suggestions personally.

    Ultimately, I think, the two are complementary and reinforce each other and I find it difficult to believe that theistic society will ever accept gay men and woman.

    1. I was growing up at a time when neither homosexuality nor atheism were the least bit publicly acceptable. I didn’t believe in god but, having no homosexual tendencies of my own, could not at that time see any reason why homosexuality should not be branded as unnatural. I’m still not homosexual, but have grown up enough to have thought my way to a point where I can see no reason homosexuals should have less rights than anybody else. Also, now that so many are out of the closet and some are in my circle of friends, I would definitely support them in any fight for equality (no, of course not just because “some of my best friends are…).

      And it’s not just that their struggle from, say, the 70s on can serve as an example for us. In thinking my way through this stuff it became pretty clear that you cannot remain an honest atheist if you harbour any prejudice against homosexuals, because the trail always leads back to something someone’s god is supposed to have said condemning them. There is no reason to be against them that doesn’t end up needing justification from something you don’t believe exists.

  9. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told I hate religion when I am quite sure I feel pretty much the same way about religion as I do about rain-dancing, voo-doo, astrology, and other “woo”. I don’t hate it; I just find it silly and possibly dangerous. I recognize that humans can be made to do anything if they are convinced that their eternity depends on them doing it.

    Of course I’ve been told I “hate” god, but I am quite sure that I feel similarly towards god that I do towards Zeus and Santa.

    I am thankful for Jerry et. al. calling this “hatred” argument for the “I surrender” flag that it is. When logical arguments fail, what is the faithiest to do except spread prejudice against those who speak the truth?

  10. The point of many theists and IDists is to be respected because they claim to have the truth, not because they can show that they have said truth.

    Then they complain because they’re not granted the respect that those who can make their case get in, say, the academic community (along with some gasbags, of course).

    But it’s not at all shocking that they would do this, because they were demanding in the first place that others respect them as if they had (or as they say, because they have) truth. Basically, it’s never been anything but assertion that their god is the true god, and so he deserves respect–and by transference, so do his followers. Anything else is ipso facto persecution.

    I’m not saying that all theists are this way. However, it’s worth noting that this is one of the dangers of “accommodation” (which I actually support to a degree–only so far, though), because it’s the same phenomenon that IDists use to claim persecution. The good thing is that they also claim to have science, which is demonstrably false (but not to many believers), so fail in that regard as well. Nevertheless, they’re feeding off of the notion that religion deserves respect because it is somehow true and respectable, without any evidence that this is the case.

    Glen Davidson

  11. Religion is not the same thing as racism and homophobia? Huh – could have fooled me on the racism thing (especially many of those Southern Baptists) and many religions still have homophobia high up on their list of official dogma. “Fear teh gayz” always comes up in the sermons.

  12. here is article 20: Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

    Lets assume for a minute that Dawkins is motivated by “hatred” … how important is the phrase “incitement to”? What is the test of “incitement”?

    Brull argues that “A liberal democracy cannot function without the possibility of discussing which beliefs are good and which ones are not. Crybaby theists wish to be shielded from the normal rough and tumble of arguments about beliefs.”

    All along Dawkins has defended himself by saying things like “what I”m saying is weak tea, compared to how people discuss things like, literature and opera” … yet Dawkins is called militant.

    It seems to me the proper response has not been to say, “i’m not being offensive” but rather, Brull’s, “telling me that I can not express my opinions is an affront to the basis of a free society”.

    We keep having the “you are being rude … no I’m not, yes you are”. Instead of the “I have every right to be rude”.

    Discrimination seems to have two meanings, on one hand it means the ability to make distinctions (to say that one thing is different from another) – on the other hand it means the existence of behavior that treats people differently.

    Does the word “discrimination” have a legal definition under Article 20?

    1. What I’ve come to think of as the “Pat Condell approach” is “nothing I can say about your religion can possibly be as offensive to you as your attempt to limit my freedom of speech is to me.”

      I don’t see why uncrossable red lines should be the preserve of those who believe in what can’t be proved. Our uncrossable red lines should be even more so for the fact that they are rationally defensible ones.

      Or have I said something I’m not allowed to? 🙂

      1. It is worth catching up on some of the back story that Russell alluded to in Australia.

        I read the Raven piece mostly as a riposte to a woman named Catherine Deveny who has had the temerity to write this:

        “When it was my turn the priest picked up a wafer and said: “The body of Christ.” The expected response is “Amen”. Instead, I said: “I have three children and have never been married. I’ve used contraception, had an abortion, use the Lord’s name in vain, think transubstantiation is a crock and I’m an atheist. And I’m not sorry.”

        Actually, I didn’t say that. I wanted to, but I felt sorry for the priest. He looked tired and worn out.”

        Not long after this, she attended a public lecture in Sydney by George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, and said did this:–radio/by-george-that-floored-them/2009/10/15/1255195864751.html

        The thing that is so interesting to me is that Deveny may be bolder than many Catholics, more eager to confront the Church, but her thoughts or ideas are common. It is as easy as missing mass to find people who feel EXACTLY as she does, raised Catholic, they have nothing by contempt for the idea that they shouldn’t have sex, get divorced, or get an abortion, because of religious teaching and the authority of the church.

        It is no wonder that her comments have provoked this kind of response. The thing is that no one is being incited to violence, they are being incited to ridicule. They are being incited to pity.

        Deveny’s public articulation of something that is widely felt, but offensive to the institutions she is attacking, does indeed incite people, just not to “violence, discrimination or hostility” but rather to “ridicule” … religion can’t deal with ridicule, but it thrives under a climate of “violence, discrimination or hostility”. Find me place with lots of these characteristics and I’ll show you a thriving church, show me a land where they freely publish Catherine Deveny, and I’ll show you 9% church attendance.

        Religion has to recast “ridicule” as “hatred” … its very survival is at stake.

    2. It’s “freedom of speech” when a theist says it about those who don’t share their beliefs… It’s “hate speech” when an atheist says it about their beliefs.

    3. I think the key word is “hostility” rather than “discrimination”. I think the latter can be held to a fairly narrow legal definition – at least I hope it can.

      But if we concede that Dawkins is motivated by hatred, then I think we’ll also have to concede that he incites hostility against at least some kinds of religion and some kinds of religious people (at least the most extreme ones).

      In fact, we probably have to concede this anyway. Inciting mere “hostility”, as opposed to violence, isn’t always a bad thing. It looks to me as if the cause of free speech is lost if it is ever conceded that Dawkins is motivated by hatred of, say, Catholics.

      Mind you, I’m sure that no sensible judge is about to hold any such thing.

      But whenever someone – especially a respected legal academic like Craven – makes this kind of claim, it becomes more plausible that a less-than-sensible judge will agree one day. That could set a dangerous precedent and possibly involve whoever is under attack in the courts (whether it is Deveny, or Dawkins, or their employers or publishers, or whomever) in incredibly difficult and expensive litigation. Even if the correct result were reached on appeal, the chilling effect of all this on legitimate critique and satire is surely obvious.

      1. I think a good strategy is to take a cue from those who are protesting Scientology. Most people do not “hate” Scientology, but they recognize that it can be manipulative and costly to adherents. Moreover, it makes claims that are clearly fantastical.

        Of course, the Scientologists refer to such protesters as being “hostile to religion” in court and as “suppressive people” amongst their own.

        Are the new atheists any more hostile to religion-in-general than “Anonymous” is to Scientology? Do atheists-in- general feel differently towards religion-in-general than non-Scientologists feel towards Scientology as a religion? Is there any reason atheists should be less “strident” in their protest of what they see as a similar con game with similar and worse potential consequences? Why the “kid glove” treatment with some brands of religion and not others?

        Atheists just want the same right to treat all religions the same way religionists treat the religions they don’t recognize or adhere too. What could be more fair than that?

        If god were real, I imagine he could fight his own battles and wouldn’t need the courts to protect his adherents. Where is the religionist’s faith if they can’t trust their god(s) to do so?

        If people don’t want their beliefs challenged or mocked, then the solution is simple– They can keep their beliefs to themselves and/or amongst their own.

        If religionists want the free-speech right to call atheists et. al. “evil”, then they must allow us to voice our opinions of them in a similar manner. What better way for them to model the respect they wish to receive then by giving it when we offend them in kind? Do unto others…

        Once one brand of religious belief is privileged in court, I hope the Wiccans, Satanists, Scientologists, Jedi’s, Pastafarians, and so forth demand equal rights for themselves so that we can use the theist’s responding arguments on themselves.

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