Sadly, it’s not that simple

A guest post by Peter Beattie

Alom Shaha, of Why Science is Important fame, has a new piece in the Guardian, arguing that “angry atheists” are too quick to hurt the feelings of believers by implying they are stupid and should be more aware that they are capable of holding irrational beliefs too. Empathy, and how we say things, may be more important than what we say.

Superficially, it would be very hard to disagree with all this, and in fact none of the usual suspects in the “‘angry atheist’ brigade“–and I won’t even go there, nor into the tired “fanatical atheism can be as ugly as religious fanaticism” bit–to my knowledge ever have disagreed with it. Of course no one advocates calling people stupid, hurting their feelings, or being oblivious to one’s own fallibility. It’s just not as simple as Alom paints it.

First, the implication of stupidity. Two things: calling an idea stupid does not equal calling a person stupid; and even with the assertion that ‘Person A is stupid’, in most cases there is the clear implication that Person A is stupid for doing/saying/believing a specific thing, quite analogously to the Forrest Gump principle of ‘stupid is as stupid does’. All of us violate that principle at least once a day, but we still recognise that this doesn’t define us as a person.

Second, the hurt feelings. Again, two things: some people will be offended, no matter how mildly the opposition to their ideas is worded; and of course nobody offends  gratuitously, but it may serve a purpose if it is complemented by an explanation, i.e. an opportunity for an audience, and an invitation to them, to raise their intellectual game, in Richard Dawkins’s phrase. Say about PZ Myers, for example, what you will, but he always builds that bridge and extends that hand.

Third, the fallibility. A fair look at the most high-profile outspoken atheists will show you that one of the things that defines them (in this role) is their honest questioning: in his documentaries, Richard Dawkins tries to be understanding to a fault; Jerry Coyne’s discussions of other people’s arguments are as fair-minded and scrupulous as they come; Dan Dennett has taken the ‘principle of charity’ to new heights; and PZ, too, is open to have his mind changed—but only, and of course only, with good reason.

What this issue boils down to, I think, is that we’re looking at the problem the wrong side up. Granting people the right to be offended because they had their feelings hurt by an attack on their ideas opens the door to all manner of infringements upon free speech. If we actually want to raise our (and other people’s) intellectual game—and in a progressive society, how can we not want that?—we will have to show, educate people about, and advocate a different approach towards contentious issues. PZ just now put it best when he said that such issues would simply go away “if a few people learned to shrug their shoulders and react rationally instead”.

So let’s try and be teachers about this instead of potential self-censors. And by all means, make the message as nice as you can while keeping it effective. But also keep this in mind: “Good experiences aren’t necessarily pleasant.

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