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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Some more on Paul Kurtz

Says Paul Kurtz:

It is one thing to examine the claims of religion in a responsible way by calling attention to Biblical, Koranic or scientific criticisms, it is quite another to violate the key humanistic principle of tolerance. One may disagree with contending religious beliefs, but to denigrate them by rude caricatures borders on hate speech. What would humanists and skeptics say if religious believers insulted them in the same way? We would protest the lack of respect for alternative views in a democratic society. I apologize to my fellow citizens who have suffered these barbs of indignity.

I've kinda covered this a couple of posts back, but there's a bit more to say ... and today is a good day to say it, since I've given a talk that discussed ideas of blasphemy, defamation of religion, and freedom of speech. I have to say that I find this passage that I've quoted above very surprising. I really don't know why Kurtz brings up the dangerous idea of "hate speech" (which may be of some value in other contexts, e.g racial ones, but causes a great deal of confusion when applied to "hate" of ideas).

This is the kind of problem that I raised towards the end of my talk, the risk that the idea of "hate" will be watered down, in which case even existing UN conventions can be very dangerous if enacted into law. The relevant UN convention (see Article 20 of the ICCPR) requires the legal suppression of religious hate speech that causes mere "hostility". But many things cause some hostility, and a degree of hostility (provided it is not violent) is not actually unwelcome in pluralistic societies. For example, there's a fair bit of hostility between political parties, supporters of rival football teams, opposed economic theorists, etc. The word "hostility" is potentially very broad.

Alas, much of Kurtz's rhetoric is unfortunate. It's especially unfortunate that he talks about violation of "the key humanistic principle of tolerance". I know of no humanistic principle that says we must tolerate, in the sense of being nice about or respectful of, every absurd idea that confronts us. Voltaire was certainly not tolerant in any such sense. If such a principle exists, it should be repudiated.

We should, indeed, exercise liberal tolerance in the sense of not trying to suppress religious ideas by fire and sword. We ought to abjure the use of the coercive power of the state to impose our own view of the world. But tolerance is not the same as respect (unless "respect" is itself defined narrowly). It is certainly not the same as "deference" or "esteem". I am, perhaps, less ready to resort to mockery and outright hostility than some of my allies, but hostility is often appropriate, and mockery certainly has its place where what is opposed is absurd. Often it takes a degree of mockery to cut through all the crap and expose the absurdity of an absurd position.

When we do this, we are not abandoning liberal tolerance, and nor, as far as I can see, are we abandoning some key principle of humanism.

This cuts both ways. Kurtz says in the passage above:

What would humanists and skeptics say if religious believers insulted them in the same way? We would protest the lack of respect for alternative views in a democratic society.

No we would not. We might disagree with the views, we might find them irritating, we might not welcome such religious believers in our houses, but we would not protest in any such way. They are entitled to insult us. What they are not entitled to do is get laws enacted to try to suppress humanism or scepticism.

As I've said before, I have some sympathy for the idea of preserving the dignified brand image that the CFI has cultivated in the past. To be clear, I'm not sure that Kurtz would be entirely right even about that. But even if he is, that does not mean that the rest of us have to be similarly dignified in our approaches, or that those who are less so should be condemned as failing to be properly tolerant. It really is over the top Kurtz to be apologising to people who have not been oppressed in any way but merely suffered some "barbs of indignity".

No one has a right to go through life never suffering such "barbs". Give me a break.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

"I know of know humanistic [...]"
Typo?
DJudge

snarly said...

I'm sure it wouldn't take a lot of digging to come up with a numerous examples of disrespectful language aimed at atheism and humanism. Have we already forgotten how secular humanism was demonized during the '80s?

NewEnglandBob said...

Good post. I especially like:

"But tolerance is not the same as respect (unless "respect" is itself defined narrowly). It is certainly not the same as "deference" or "esteem"."

and:

"...but hostility is often appropriate, and mockery certainly has its place where what is opposed is absurd."

Russell Blackford said...

Eeek! Will fix the typo (hereby acknowledged).

shonny said...

Very interesting, Russ.
From what I understood the Blasphemy Day to be was a kinda commemorative day for all the people and peoples who have been prosecuted and executed for their unwillingness to adhere to others' religious beliefs, and for questioning those beliefs.
That means a day when questioning and ridiculing all forms of superstition, but in particular that kind of superstition where the myths by decree are held as 'truths', a.k.a. religions.

And yes, it is good to see that you are getting towards being an Aussie PZ or RD!

Greywizard said...

I agree that Paul Kurtz's rhetoric is extreme. The use of the terms 'hate speech' and 'fundamentalist atheists' seems to me very unfortunate. Yet I think you do come to the heart of his concern when you speak "of preserving the dignified brand image that the CFI has cultivated in the past." That sense of dignity, and of principled engagement with believers, is probably, in Kurtz's view, endangered by the idea of a "Blasphemy Day", a day set aside to mock and ridicule the religious. Perhaps that is not the intention, but it is surely not unreasonable to fear that that is the kind of thing that will happen.

And, while it may be true that the religious should not expect immunity from barbs of indignity, it is surely inappropriate to mock them gratuitously, by deliberately profaning things that they hold sacred for no other reason than that they do. The Jesus and Mo cartoons, for example, almost always make fun of Christians based on what is in the news. The mockery is contextual. It merely shows how Christians and Muslims mock themselves publicly by the silly or repugnant things that they say and do. The same goes for the Danish Mohammed cartoons.

Toleration does not put people beyond criticism for their beliefs or deeds, but it does at least acknowledge that we share the same society, and are permitted, in private, to believe and do things that other people regard as ridiculous. The only reason to ridicule such beliefs and practices is that they have a detrimental effect on our public life, and to the extent that they do they should be criticised and mocked, sometimes without any regard for feelings. Often, very important principles are at stake, and nonbelievers are probably often too reticent with their criticisms.

Of course, Kurtz is wrong to suggest that humanists "would protest the lack of respect for alternative views in a democratic society." After all, the religious have not been slow to condemn, in detail, the views of atheists, and to suggest the most outrageous things about them, and there have not been answering protests in reply. I suspect that Kurtz's main point may be that the idea of a "Blasphemy Day" tends to trivialise something that he thinks very important, something to which he has devoted his entire life. I think it does too, but I am not opposed to blasphemy, or even to the most strenuous opposition to the idiocies of religion.

WCG said...

Another great post and thoughtful comments. I won't presume to add anything - er, much - except to note my favorite passage:

I am, perhaps, less ready to resort to mockery and outright hostility than some of my allies, but hostility is often appropriate, and mockery certainly has its place where what is opposed is absurd. Often it takes a degree of mockery to cut through all the crap and expose the absurdity of an absurd position.

When we do this, we are not abandoning liberal tolerance, and nor, as far as I can see, are we abandoning some key principle of humanism.


Tolerance and mockery aren't diametrically opposed. No one supports a person's right to believe more than I, but I can still laugh at those beliefs. Of course, there's a time and a place for everything.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"One may disagree with contending religious beliefs, but to denigrate them by rude caricatures ..."

If the emphasis were on caricatures, then Kurtz, I think, would have a defensible position. It is one thing to mock by saying something truthful, or even by simply not treating something with the seriousness that it is usually given. (The display about Jesus doing his nails is an example of the latter.) Caricature, though, implies distortion, and using mockery as a tool to distort facts is a very bad thing. Of course, that argument is more against certain kinds of mockery, and Kurtz seems to be aiming more broadly.

Ian said...

"What would humanists and skeptics say if religious believers insulted them in the same way? We would protest the lack of respect for alternative views in a democratic society."

Liberals in America have been under assault for decades, suffering the cheap barbs of rightwing media blowhards with a consequent growth in American incivility. The campaign has been so successful that liberals now dub themselves progressives in order to escape the taint.

Moses said...

Rules and social conventions are fine... But they are also another tool for those in power to continue to disenfranchise those who are not -- frequently this women and minorities.

Not in the history of Western Civilization have those in power willingly and easily given up their power. Rather it has always taken some form of civil disobedience, often quite contentious. The civil rights movements in the 1960s. Suffragettes demanding the right to vote in "the good old days." The Stonewall riots that lead to the decriminalization of homosexuality and the vociferous Gay Rights protests of the 70's.

All of these movements required men and women to move past the social conventions that demanded their silence in the sake of "politeness." And leaders of many organizations, in these movements (and ultimately marginalized by the movements) tried to hold their power by encouraging conformance to the desires of the powerful that were disenfranchising them.

So, good for blasphemy day. The relgious are not owed any respect because they, as a populace, don't really show it for anyone not of their faith. I've been cursed and damned and told I'm an inferior, immoral reprobate suffering from huge emotional flaws because of my "anger" at God causing me to deny him. As Gandhi said: I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.

SusanR said...

Just found this blog by way of PZ Meyers. Recently I gave a speech opposing government sponsored prayer at a city council. The only Supreme Court case on point upheld prayer because of its tradition in the US. I argue that government prayer could not be challenged throughout our U S history without risking being murdered, or driven away from your home or family, or risking losing your livelihood.
After all that has been done to non-believers and non-christians over the centuries in the name of religion, I find it obscene that anyone thinks we owe the religious any kind of tolerance or respect.
The more Blasphemy the better. Paul Kurtz is getting too soft or confused in his old age maybe. But I'm not exactly young- I am a 50 year old female.

articulett said...

I think it's crappy when the faitheists apologize for atheists. To me, faitheists are contributing to a prejudice against non believers so that they can imagine themselves as sort of moderate or diplomatic. They do not speak for me, and nobody is keeping them from kissing as much theist ass as they want.

As an atheist, I want the freedom to treat all superstitions the way theists treat the superstitions they don't believe in. I want all believers to be as discreet and private in their beliefs as they want others to be-- and not to ask for privileges they wouldn't extend to homosexuals, atheists, Satanists, Wiccans, and everyone else!

BlackWizard said...

[it is quite another to violate the key humanistic principle of tolerance.]

“Tolerance” isn’t a principle I abide by or advocate in the sense Kurtz seems to be using it. It’s very strange that he would criticize Blasphemy Day as being anti-tolerance, when the whole point of it is to…oppose intolerance. What, exactly, is intolerant about promoting that idea that all opinions, religious or otherwise, should be equally subject to criticism, ridicule, and mockery? People may consider mockery, in many or most cases, to be rude, or mean, or cruel, yet these very same people would fight tooth and nail to prevent laws against comedy or against mockery generally. Blasphemy Day is, to a large extent, about supporting this extension of our demand that we possess the right to make fun and to criticize to religion, simply because religions and societies in general have passed laws specifically prohibiting this form of speech, proposed binding UN resolutions to this effect, and in general generated a taboo about doing so, legal or otherwise. Many have argued that it is uniquely insulting to religious people to offend their religious sensibilities: they’re right, and this is precisely BECAUSE these people have lived for centuries under conditions where religion has been legally and socially protected against criticism!

Is it not obvious that it is opposition to ridiculing religion that helps perpetuate the heightened level of offense that the religious respond to insults with? That is, that the protection we afford religion is the very source of and guardian of some of the primary reasons we oppose violating that wall of protection.

My primary reason for supporting Blasphemy Day is that a public push to insult the hell out of religion will, in the long run, desensitize the public to it. It is the same reason I believe laws and regulations against profanity should be lifted; it is the very prohibition of disapproval of profanity that generates the force of hurt and offense to such terms; to those of us who personally abandon such prohibitions and use profanity liberally, it loses the force of offense that its detractors ascribe to it.

At any rate, your response is pretty much ideally what I’d like to have said myself regarding Kurtz, but I’ll add this:

Perhaps I’m a bit out of line in not showing respect for my elders, but I don’t see anything to respect in the things Kurtz has said regarding Blasphemy Day. Indeed, I’m borderline prepared to begin ridiculing HIM for the sort of silly, thoughtless rhetoric I make fun of the religious for. Many of his comments seem to me no better than guilt-by-association rubbish that tries to cast Blasphemy Day in a poor light by conjuring up bogeymen it’s got nothing to do with. Who the hell are these atheist “fundamentalists”? I have literally never met one. Such comments sound to me like the type of bullshit faitheists use, and to have the founder of one of the most active pro-atheism groups on the planet adopting this form of discourse is disturbing.

DJudge said...

I love the blog.
Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

"it is surely inappropriate to mock them gratuitously, by deliberately profaning things that they hold sacred for no other reason than that they do."

So you would condemen PZ Meyers' desecration of a communion wafer?

Scote said...

"One may disagree with contending religious beliefs, but to denigrate them by rude caricatures ...""

One wonders if Kurtz would condemn Voltaire on the same basis. Would Candide be hate speech by Kurtz' definition? Either way, Kurtz' remarks are extremely disappointing.

kynefski said...

So you would condemen PZ Meyers' desecration of a communion wafer?

Myers was reacting with appropriate force to insanely vicious verbal attacks on a student, as well as providing a useful reminder of the history of Christian anti-Semitism.

Kurtz, I expect, is talking about how we address the religious in the absence of provocation. Personally, I haven't witnessed much in the way of "denigrat[ion[..by rude caricature," but I have witnessed speech that almost seems to want to cross the line between person and idea. Not every call for civility is oppressive.

Sigmund said...

"So you would condemen PZ Meyers' desecration of a communion wafer?"
I wouldn't exactly condemn it but I was disappointed that he'd managed to obscure the original point (it was just a cracker!) with the unrelated accusations of historical blood libel.
In doing so he clumsily allowed himself to be portrayed as intolerant of the sacred beliefs of ordinary Catholics rather than highlighting the irrational aspect of treating a piece of dried bread as though it was magic.

shonny said...

Seems like you're confusing intolerance with ridicule, Sigmund.

What PZ did was to ridicule the catlickers, and that is not intolerance, that is just to highlight how silly it is to accept unquestioning what them catlickers hold as sacred.