Thursday, 25 March 2010

Don't Be Ridiculous

Nothing short of a quest for meaning...

Followers of this blog - and I realise that, at the moment, these are mythical beings - will see a theme emerging over a few of the previous posts. I have been trying to find some kind of concrete definition of what constitutes ridicule of the religious and their beliefs. It all started with the Questions of Faith blog and my interest has since then been fuelled by media reports in the aftermath of the GAC. Before the convention even started, the verdict was in: Atheists are all disrespectful of religious beliefs and cannot raise themselves above ridicule and militancy. This was hinted at in post #1 of Questions of Fath, repeated many times in this country's media during the visit of one Richard Dawkins, and is an accusation levelled at atheists time and again in general conversation, political forums, lively debates and congregational meetings.

I've been looking into it for some time now and I think I have discovered the definition of ridicule when it comes to religion.

Ridicule: Any statement or phrase that indicates a difference of opinion, an assertion of disbelief or an outright disagreement with any generally accepted religious concept.

Let me explain further.

Matters of Tone, Disrespect and Avoiding the Issue...

I tried to cut this excerpt from Q&A down. I could not. Please bear with me as I ask you to read this excerpt from the transcript.

RICHARD DAWKINS: The New Testament - you believe, if you believe in the New Testament, that God, the all powerful creator of the universe couldn't think of a better way to forgive humanity's sins than to have himself put on earth, tortured and executed in atonement for the sins of humanity? What kind of a horrible, depraved notion is that?

JULIE BISHOP: You know, can I just say one thing?


JULIE BISHOP: You know what disturbs me about this debate and that is that people should respect other people's views. Now, the neo-creationists say that there's no scientific theory or fact and they deny it and the neo-Darwinists deny that there's faith or religion. Let's show some respect for different people's views and then I think the debate will be perhaps much more pleasant.

RICHARD DAWKINS: What is wrong - when you say - you're implying I didn't show respect.

JULIE BISHOP: No, I'm saying that what disturbs me about this debate and we see it often is that there are extremes. And whenever I see extremes I'm concerned.

RICHARD DAWKINS: But the extreme is in the New Testament. I simply told you what is New Testament doctrine. That is St Paul's view, which is accepted by Christianity. That's why Christ came to earth, in order to atone for humanity's sins. If it's extreme, it's not me that's being extreme, it's the new testament that's being extreme.

TONY JONES: No, well, I'm going to jump in here, because is that not a story of sacrifice and therefore has something admirable attached to it which is the opposite of what you suggested?

RICHARD DAWKINS: Do you think it's admirable? You think it's admirable that God actually had himself tortured for the sins of humanity?

TONY JONES: That is the Christian view obviously.

RICHARD DAWKINS: That is the Christian view. If you think that's admirable, you can keep it.

TONY JONES: Okay. Tony Burke, first of all, quickly?

TONY BURKE: I don't think your ridicule of people's faith is much better than what you're criticising. I really don't.

RICHARD DAWKINS: But I just stated it. I didn't ridicule it. I simply stated it.

TONY BURKE: No. No. No. No. Sorry, if you go back over the words you used, once you're stating it you did then ridicule it. You did. And if you want to look at the challenges and the conflicts and making a community around the world work together, then the level of respect that so many religions have not shown for each other absolutely needs to be lifted and your level of respect and tolerance could probably be a bit better too.

RICHARD DAWKINS: Let me answer that. Let me answer that. I did not more than state the Christian doctrine and Tony then said, "That is the Christian doctrine. Isn't it admirable." People said, "Yes, it's admirable." So how is it disrespectful if I simply state what it is and half the audience think it's admirable? What's disrespectful about stating it?

TONY BURKE: Press rewind, hear your own words. You have changed them.



This situation is going to be familiar to a lot of atheists. The question, prior to this debate on Q&A kicking off, was put to Richard Dawkins about morality coming from the bible, about the bible containing a notion of absolute morality, and how humanity can divine these concepts in no other way. A bold assertion, certainly, that Dawkins tries to refute by demonstrating what he believes to be an extremely amoral part of the New Testament. Read it for yourself and decide if I'm misrepresenting the situation.

The reaction, as you can see, is bristly. Immediately, upon declaring the story of Jesus' crucifixion a 'horrible and depraved' notion, he is taken to task by Julie Biship in a round-about way and Tony Burke in a direct way for being incredibly disrespectful. I invite the deputy leader of the opposition and the minister to remember exactly what it is we are talking about here: the torture and murder of an innocent man, upon which the weight of all the sins of every man in the world was transferred so that human kind could go on living without the burden of responsibility for their transgressions. The story goes that he was beaten, made to carry his own cross to the top of a hill, whereupon he was hung by nails through his hands, furnished with a crown of thorns, and made to suffer horribly until the point that he died. Go back and re-read that last sentence and raise your hand at the point where you find the words 'horrible and depraved' do not apply. I don't imagine many people typing, one handed, into my comments box to tell me exactly where this occurred.

In the transcript above we have written in plan text exactly what occurred - the Professor detailed which parts of the bible he found less than admirable, asked the audience whether they believed the story to be admirable themselves, and invited them to 'keep it'. That is a disagreement. On any other topic imaginable, this would be called 'not seeing eye-to-eye'. People would amicably enough move on and concentrate on the real point - in this case, does morality come from the bible or not. In the religious debate, we do not find this to be the case. People are unwilling to move beyond their objections to the disagreement and, as a result, those doing the disagreeing are labelled disrespectful and accused of ridicule.

I put this to Margaret Coffey of Questions of Faith and her response may have seemed quite reasonable to her at the time. She claimed that what most Christians take issue with in these matters is the 'tone' in which they are addressed. While I have no problem admitting that you can find examples of strident and immature atheists in the world who want nothing more than an ecumenical game of fisticuffs with a staunch religionist, I'm going to take specific issue with this for the simple reason that 'tone' is not a consideration in any other debate, anywhere, ever. Further to that, matters of tone are not taken into consideration in the reverse - the religious are never seen to turn the accusation of disrespect back on themselves. A curious double standard emerges. An atheist that disagrees with a Christian is being strident, ridiculing beliefs and generally making a nuisance of themselves. A Christian who disagrees with an atheist is simply one of the majority and the assertion of their views a fact of everyday life in a country founded on Christian principles.

Consider this: some two streets away from my house is a Catholic school. This school has a notice board out the front of it that reads 'Catholic Education Week: Education of the whole person' (Italics are mine). If a Christian takes issue with Richard Dawkins' disagreement with their beliefs, am I not entitled to take offense at the idea that my public school education was deficient in that it only educated part of me, and not the whole? Am I allowed to take issue with the tone being employed here, and campaign to have them say 'Catholic Education Week: Of course other points of view are valid, we believe ours is quite good, and invite you to consider sending your children to us after a careful elimination of all the other options because of our specific set of values that work for us :-)"? (The smiley face is very important - this is a notice board, after all, and it is important we know that the writer was smiling at the time).

Of Course Not.

Nor do I want to.

Am I to take offense at the fact that, despite sunday morning services around the country going on peacefully and undisturbed every single week, the one weekend the atheists decided to have a conference a table of Christians set up outside to hand out pamphlets? Ask yourself: How respectful is that? You will certainly not find the reverse - no atheist has ever approached a full church on sunday morning and handed out 'There's probably no god, so stop worrying and enjoy life' stickers. But is this something worth getting riled up about?

Of course not.

Am I to take offense to the brave Christian woman who stood in the middle of the Athiest Convention and declared "I'm afraid I do believe in God, and I will be praying for all of us before bed tonight"? You would not find me approaching a church in Newcastle and shouting from the pulpit 'I think you've all got kind of the wrong idea, here'. Surely there is something to be said for the disrespect that unwanted prayer for the unfaithful incurs? Are we not to get riled up, take ourselves off in a huff, and refuse to engage in the argument over religion ever again because we don't feel we are being treated fairly?

Of course not.


A Civil Tongue - For Civil Ears...

These are petty concerns. They are the attitude of the precious and the smothered and the protected, and they show a spectacular want to avoid the issue that is being talked about. Some days ago I sent a text message to Paul Bevan on 1233 ABC Newcastle which, as far as I know, was read out (I got waylaid with work and was unable to listen). It went like this:

Paul, regarding the atheist lack of respect: I wonder, should we beware the theists who cry 'disrespect' and 'insensitivity' during every single debate on the topic of religion? It seems to me a very easy way to avoid engaging with the actual issues. 'I don't like your tone, therefore this debate is over'. A genuine problem arises when 'disrespect' is confused with disagreement and all debate is halted. Respect for individuals is of course a given - but it is impossible for an argument to take place unless beliefs are questioned. Consider what parliament would be like if politicians demanded respect and sensitivity for their position on the political spectrum. More time would be spent apologizing than arguing. While a cordial level of respect should OF COURSE be maintained between two parties to a lively discussion no matter the topic, it is surely silly to expect that neither will say something that other finds unpalatable. I end with the words of Christopher Hitchens: 'As long as we are having a civilised conversation, why is there a need to keep insisting that is what we are doing'? (Mitch, Newcastle - does not know the meaning of brevity).

It more or less summarises what I am trying to say here. The nature of argument is that people are going to disagree. It is a fact of life that, at some point, someone is going to clash with your own point of view. It is important to know that when this does happen that the other is not automatically being disrespectful of your point of view by virtue of the fact that they do not share it. I actually believe that most people already know and understand this but, bizarrely, we make one exception: religion.

We could all make a legitimate claim, no matter what side of the debate we are on, to being treated with insensitivity by the other side. To allow ourselves to get bogged down in this rather than pick up and carry on with what actually matters - the content of the debate - is to do ourselves and the future of our society a great disservice.

Those that demand a civil tongue be kept would be well reminded that a civil ear is the other side of that equation. 'I do not like your tone' will become less and less of an excuse as this debate between secular and religious values continues, and the sooner that it is swept aside like the lame straw man that it is the sooner we will be able to make some actual progress and find a common ground. Until then, atheists will be forced to defend themselves from sweeping accusations of disrespect and insensitivity, theists will retreat further into their cotton wool fortresses, and the status quo will remain statically quoed.

When the status quo allows things like the trampling of womens rights, the oppression of entire cultures, the deaths of thousands in meaningless wars over devastated and war-torn deserts, the suppression of homosexual rights, the institutionalised rape and torture of children (a practice that I will not refer to by its sensitive alternative, 'abuse') by their annointed spiritual leaders and the indoctrination of millions of people on pain of death, it is something that we all ought to be showing a little more urgency to try and shift.


  1. Hi Mitch, in the main I agree with your comments about institutionalized religion. You've got to admit though that Dawkins can come across as a bit on the combative side.

    Where I'm coming from is to highlight the dire need for our culture to decouple ASAP the search for higher meaning and purpose, on the one hand, from organised religion on the other. The two do not go hand in hand. Should not. Never did.

    I think that many of the problems emerging in recent years/decades---eg rapidly accelerating destructive trends eg substance abuse, self mutilation, suicide, etc etc especially among young people---is absolutely and unequivocally the result of a perceived lack of meaning and purpose to life. This has arisen in my view because organised religion is no longer doing its job (if it ever was) and worse than that, is actively blocking pathways towards higher meaning and purpose.

    It's very unpleasant to go through life believing that one is just a walking sack of blood and bone, no more no less. Who wouldn't be depressed if that were all there is to life. And I should know --- having spent forty years as a vicious, snarling, patronising, bullying and deeply troubled atheist. Until... I saw the light! and Lo and behold... Ha ha. Just kidding.

    Well, actually not kidding. I experienced a spiritual awakening which changed everything for me. But, I hasten to add, my way is my way and is not necessarily your way or anyone's way. You know, people bleat a lot about "human rights". For me the number one, big kahuna, highest and biggest human right of all is the right to seek to understand the universe in ones own way. Without priests blocking and banning and prohibiting and what have you.

    Part of the problem is that the words in which we have these discussions carry so much baggage. The word "god" for instance has been used and abused for so long and in so many different ways that it carries no intelligible meaning any more. It means so many different things to different people in different contexts---how can we have a meaningful conversation about something when the words we have to describe that something no longer carry meaning.

    The funny thing is, if you really look hard at it, there is no substantive disagreement between believers and non-believers, as illustrated in delude this richard dawkins in Cosmic Rapture.

    masterymistery at cosmic rapture

    Anyway, that's my little spray of the day.

    Keep up the good work --- this is important stuff.

    masterymistery at cosmic rapture

  2. MasteryMistery, I am so sorry - I had a very long reply typed out for you, but when I hit post google swallowed it and it disappeared into the goddamn depths of the internet. I am rather incensed about the whole thing, and I'll have to respond in more detail at a later date.

    My sincerest apologies.

  3. Hey Mitch, no problem. Technology and I are not friends: I'm still grappling with the piece of crap called "Windows Vista".

    Just wanted to suggest you have a look at the latest post at Cosmic Rapture, Living arrangements.

    One of the aims is to show how science and spirituality could and should be good friends. And that there is nothing in the scientific/materialist/reductionist world view that fundamentally rules out the existence of deity.