Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The use of ridicule in atheistic evangelism

There was a time when people valued a good productive conversation in which ideas were exchanged, people understood each other, and arguments were challenging.  Whenever these conversations turned to anger, ridicule, and vitriol, it was thought that the conversation had degenerated.

As long as I've been involved in apologetics, there have always been people who seemed to be capable of nothing more than spouting vitriol, invective, and insult.  You couldn't reason with them.  You couldn't have a civil or rational conversation with them.  The internet is still full of people like that.  YouTube is overrun by them.

But things have changed.  Ridicule and emotional outbursts are no longer limited to random people on the internet.  Now, even the most intelligent and educated atheists are advocating it.  Here is Richard Dawkins encouraging his followers to ridicule Christians (especially Catholics):

When I first started noticing intellectuals engaging in this kind of behavior, I lost respect for them.  I had a hard time taking them seriously.  I automatically assumed that if somebody was acting that way that they were unsophisticated and didn't have much of value to contribute.  It made me not want to read their books because I didn't value their input.  I assumed they were just like the people I had run into on message boards and YouTube.

And that made me curious why they would behave that way.  It seemed counter-productive.  In The God Delusion, Dawkins said his purpose was to convert religious people into atheists (p. 28; my review).  I couldn't understand why he would advocate ridicule if he really wanted to win Christians over.  It seemed like that would just turn them off and make them not even want to read his book or hear his arguments.  My suspicion was that Dawkins had been humiliated for years by people (even his fellow atheists), calling him a coward for refusing to debate William Lane Craig, and he was just lashing out.  He wanted other people to join him in order to reinforce his feeling of superiority.

But then I read a couple of blog entries on Debunking Christianity by John Loftus.  The first one was called "The era of the angry atheist is over." He cited Richard Dawkins as early as 2002 saying, "Let's all stop being so damned respectful."  Then he called it a "strategy."  The goal, apparently, was to wake people up--to get them talking and debating, to get fence-sitters to change their minds, to get atheists to be open about their atheism.  Loftus, who calls himself a pragmatist, argued in this blog entry that the era of the "angry atheist" is (or ought to be) over because the strategy no longer works.  It alienates Christians.  But then he said there are still plenty of reasons to engage in ridicule because, as Richard Carrier argued, "it does have an effect."

The second blog entry I read by Loftus was called "Christian scholars are defending me?  Now I know I'm doomed."  This one was even more revealing.  In this piece, Loftus cites Jeffrey Jay Lowder and Richard Carrier who disagree on the usefulness of ridicule. Lowder thinks it is counter-productive, and Carrier thinks it is productive.  Loftus' own position is that it's kind of productive, but not if it's over-used.  The purpose, according to Carrier, is to get people to change their minds by shaming them into it.  Loftus gives a lucid explanation of how it works:

What PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins are counting on when they use the Courtier's Reply are numbers.  In a society where there are more non-believers than believers, that reply would take its toll on believers because people gravitate toward the opinions of others.  That is to say, people are conforming creatures, most of us.  We don't want to be viewed as strange, weird, or people on the fringes of society.  So if what we believe is ridiculed by a majority of people then we will seek to resolve our cognitive dissonance by reassessing what we believe because of this ridicule.  Ridicule works, but only if there are large numbers of people who do it compared to the numbers of others who believe differently

Loftus himself does not advocate ridicule (at least not to the same degree as Myers, Carrier, and Dawkins), partly because it works by peer pressure rather than reason, which is a bad role model for skepticism, and partly because he thinks it doesn't work that well since atheists don't have enough people to make it effective.

I find this pragmatism very interesting.  The goal is to convert people to atheism, but apparently the means aren't that important.  Whatever works.  It doesn't matter whether you change your mind because reason dictates that you should or if you change your mind just so you can fit in, not feel stupid, be one of the "brights," etc.  The important thing is that you're an atheist. If arguments aren't enough, then use peer pressure.  I'm surprised that people who pride themselves on their use of reason and their elevation of science and evidence over faith and emotional appeals would think this way.

Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnauer have this Kindle book called True Reason, which is a collection of essays by various people who argue that the New Atheists' attempt to take the intellectual high road is pretentious.  I'm inclined to agree with them.  If Richard Carrier is right that ridicule works in getting people to convert to atheism, then there are a lot of atheists in this movement who are atheists because they were shamed into it and not because reason is on their side.  Think about that the next time you carefully lay out a multi-step logical argument, and the only response you get is, "You're an idiot!"

Friday, September 14, 2012

God doesn't make mistakes

Today on Twitter, the following conversation took place:

[random citizen] to Kristin Chenoweth:  I got told I'm going to hell for being gay.  This isn't true, is it?

Kristin Chenoweth to [random citizen]:  Nope.  He doesn't make mistakes.

Me to Kristin Chenoweth:  Kristen, do you think ANYBODY goes to hell?  Do you think there IS a hell?  Do you think Hitler was a mistake?

Kristin Chenoweth to me:  Um.  Please tell me you're not comparing the two.  Don't be cray cray.  And try and have a nice day.

Me to Kristin Chenoweth:  My point is that the mere fact that God doesn't make mistakes is no reason to think nobody goes to hell.  I'm not cray cray.  :-)

Me to Kristin Chenoweth:  But don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that gay people go to hell; I'm just saying your rationale is fallacious.

After that last comment, she blocked me.  I thought I would flesh out my argument here for a couple of reasons: (1) because this "God doesn't make mistakes" argument comes up a lot in this context, and (2) because I may get some heat from some of Kristin's fans, and since there's not enough room on twitter to explain myself, I can explain myself here and post a link there in case anybody says something to me.

Kristin is basically making this argument:

1.  Whatever God does, it is not a mistake.
2.  God made gay people.
3.  Therefore, gay people are not a mistake.
4.  If somebody is not a mistake, then they will not go to hell.
5.  Therefore, gay people will not go to hell.

The problem is that this argument proves too much.  If you take it to its logical conclusion, you would have to conclude either that God did not make Hitler or that Hitler is not going to hell.  You can show that by taking Kristin's premises to their logical conclusions, like so:

1.  Whatever God does, it is not a mistake.
2'.  God made Hitler.
3'.  Therefore, Hitler was not a mistake.
4.  If somebody is not a mistake, then they will not go to hell.
5'.  Therefore, Hitler will not go to hell.

Now, if Kristin insists that Hitler WILL go to hell, then she's either got to deny 2' or 4. She's got to deny either that God made Hitler or that if somebody is not a mistake that they will not go to hell.  It is not likely that she will deny that God made Hitler.  Being a Christian, Kristen believes that God made everybody.  She has no choice, then, but to deny either that Hitler is going to hell or that not being a mistake is any reason to think somebody will not go to hell.

This is just simple logic.  Kristen's response in suggesting that I'm "cray cray" for "comparing the two," is also a typical response.  But it's not a rational response.  It's an emotional response.  It's a frequent one that comes up a lot in the context of same sex marriage and other issues dealing with homosexuality, so I better respond to that one, too.

It is true that I made a comparison (or at least an analogy) between gay people and Hitler.  But I didn't make any comparison that anybody ought to be offended by.   I did not say, for example, that gay people are bad just like Hitler is bad.  The only thing I am claiming they have in common is that God created them both.  If Kristin agrees with me that God created everybody, then she will have to agree with me that God created both Hitler and gay people since they are all people.  There is no reason for any gay people to be offended by that.  In fact, I would make the same comparison between myself and Hitler.  We were both created by the same God.  I am not insulting myself by making this comparison, and I am not insulting gay people by making that comparison either.

Kristin's response is the kind of silliness you get when people emote rather than think.

conscience and moral intuition

Up until today, I have thought that conscience and moral intuition were roughly the same thing.  But as I was sitting here thinking about it, I noticed a difference.  Of course this difference depends on how the words are actually used and what people actually mean by them.  After all, words are defined by their use, and maybe people do use them interchangeably.  But I don't, which I just noticed as I was reflecting on it.  Lemme explain the difference.

Your conscience is what makes you feel incumbency.  It makes you feel the weight of your moral obligations. It accuses you and acquits you.  It makes you feel guilty when you've done wrong and it makes you feel justified when you've done right.

But your moral intuitions tell you more than that.  Your moral intuitions tells you what's right and wrong, not just for you, but for everybody else.

While your conscience can make you feel like you shouldn't do something, your moral intuitions tells you that nobody else should do it either.

I think your conscience is informed by your moral intuition.  The reason your conscience makes you feel guilty after an action is because your moral intuition tells you that it was wrong.  The reason your conscience makes you feel like you should do something is because your  moral intuitions tells you that you should.

This may be why there's this fuzzy connection between feelings and morals.  Our conscience is our feeling about morals and our relationship to them, but our moral intuitions are not feelings.  That's why it's possible to think something is wrong and not care.  It's also why it's possible to feel guilty even when you know you're not guilty.

What do you think?

Related subject:  Emotivist objection to arguments for morality