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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jean Kazez on Gnude Clothes and shutting up

Over on her blog, In Living Color, Jean Kazez replies to my recent post, "The Emperor's Gnude Clothes". Now, a debate like this can go very meta, or meta-meta, very quickly. I doubt that we can get to the bottom of why people find some incidents salient, while other people consider them pretty much unimportant. I'm not all that interested in berating Kazez, but the discussion has led her to some positions that ought to raise eyebrows at least slightly.

Before we get to that, she says that her own original story was about how a certain kind of courage in revealing falsehood and credulity can degenerate into contempt. Her original story, as you may recall, was this:
Other kids were impressed with the brave girl. They started saying the same thing--"The emperor has no clothes! The emperor has no clothes!" Soon just saying he had no clothes lost its appeal. They shouted louder and louder, and called the emperor a fatty and laughed uproariously.

Some of the adults said: "Children. You're right he's naked. The brave girl was perfectly right to say so. But you've gotten carried away. It's time to think this through. Maybe the emperor actually enjoys being naked. Maybe he really doesn't know he's naked, and he can't figure it out when you're yelling at him. Maybe when he looks at you, your clothes look ridiculous to him, too! Control yourselves, think about how you're communicating!"

This made the children very, very angry. They wanted to believe they were just like that first brave girl. They didn't want to see themselves as rude and insulting. So the children went after the adults who had chided them, and called them names, and derided the whole idea of Communicative Restraint and Politeness, which they called crap for short.
Now let's look at this for a minute. The children begin shouting, calling the emperor "a fatty", and laughing uproariously. When some adults ask them to control themselves, they call the adults names and they deride "the whole idea of Communicative Restraint and Politeness". This is pretty clearly a story about how the children go beyond saying bravely that the emperor has no clothes to (1) behaving in an uncivil manner (being rude and insulting, shouting, and engaging in uproarious mocking laughter), and (2) deriding the very idea that they should be civil.

If this is intended to be a metaphor for the New Atheist (sort of) movement - once it goes beyond the four horsemen of the apocalypse to the lower levels of the infantry of the apocalypse, or perhaps the pedestrians of the apocalypse - it's rather strained to say the least. The suggestion is that some group of people who are analogous to the children in the story are not merely being forthright but are engaging in something equivalent to rudeness, shouting, in-your-face laughter, and so on, that they reject all ideas of politeness and communicative restraint, and that they actually call ideas of civility some equivalent of "crap".

That may be how things appear to Jean, but as I suggested in my response and my further thoughts over the past few days, it's not how things seem to me at all. There are several points to be made here. First, there is always going to be a level of very robust debate on the internet, so it's always possible to find examples of people who really are behaving very rudely and perhaps rejecting ideas of politeness. But that's not something unique to people with New Atheist sympathies. You'll find people behaving like this when discussing the merits of political parties, sports teams, movies, comic-book artists, or whatever else people get passionate about. So it's hardly fair saying that the New Atheism encourages incivility any more than these other things. The most that can be said is that the subject of religion is now debated on the internet in a way that was not common a decade ago, so inevitably it attracts the same kind of very robust arguments as, say, sport or politics. Inevitably, some people will let off steam on their own blogs, and we'll see even more robust expression from anonymous commenters.

Second, a great deal of what we've seen has not been "adults" telling the uncivil "children" to please show some communicative restraint. In the case of the debate around Jerry Coyne's "Seeing and Believing" piece in The New Republic, what we saw was someone showing all the appropriate communicative restraint, and basically being told that the content of what he said was not acceptable. He should not have questioned beliefs, criticised certain kinds of believers, or supported the view that there's no God. The "adults" (in this case Barbara Forrest and Chris Mooney) were not telling him to be civil - they were telling not to say these things even in the civil way that he did. More generally, a great deal of the criticism of the New Atheists goes beyond disagreement and beyond tut-tutting about actual incivility (by normal standards of civility) to involve complaints that these people say the things they do at all - or at least that they say them to a wide audience. When, like Cordelia in my version of the story, they express annoyance, they are then attacked further for their "stridency", and so on. Inevitably this escalates the situation.

Now, I'm not going to go to a lot of trouble to document the preceding paragraph. I dealt with some of it last time, as far as the original incident goes. I'm mainly reporting how it seems to those of us on my side of the fence, why the Kazez story seems very unfair, and why it is unlikely to change anyone's behaviour. Simply put, people in my position don't actually feel as if we've shown no communicative restraint, been especially uncivil ... or lacked reasonable justification on those occasions when we have, in fact, expressed annoyance. I'm sure that what I'm saying here will ring true for many readers, or gel with their experience. That's the reality that Jean and others are confronted with.

Third, a great deal that has happened has had a context. If people who don't believe they have been especially uncivil are chided not to be "a dick", or if lies are told about people like them behaving in public in outrageously uncivil ways, and if stories are told that suggest they are uncivil in the manner of the children in Jean's story, it produces certain emotions. To be blunt, it creates anger and ill-will. At a minimum, it looks as if the people (the so-called "adults") saying these things are insensitive to the feelings and grievances of the "children" they are telling to Be Moar Civil. The result is that the children are likely to express annoyance and anger ... and again the whole thing escalates. In such circumstances there will inevitably be genuine examples of uncivil conduct on both sides of the debate. But that happens in any debate - once again, whether it concerns political parties, sports teams, comic-book artists, or whatever you want to name.

One lesson to be learned from all this is that there's a danger in going meta. Once you move away from debating the truth or falsity of ideas to discussing other people's behaviour, what should or should not be said, and so on, you almost inevitably add to whatever degree of incivility was around in the first place. That's not to say that going meta is never appropriate. But people who decide to go meta should be aware of the likely outcome - an escalation of ill-feeling, and even feelings of injustice and moralistic anger - and take this into account. If you do decide to go meta, you'd be advised to show a lot of explicit humility and trepidation. If you then use the annoyed responses of others as evidence of their inherent uncivil tendencies, you'd better be aware that this will be seen by them as further unfairness or injustice ... and will provoke even more annoyance.

In the current Gnu Wars, a lot of ill-feeling was created by the bogus Tom Johnson story, which was used as evidence of Gnu Atheist types engaging in extreme and foolish kinds of public incivility. As this escalated, it became very ill-advised of Phil Plait to go meta in a vague way that seemed to accuse others of being "dicks" - without giving examples. In some other context, what he said may have been quite sensible. In the historical context that he was actually involved in, going meta in this sort of way - and defending it with no real show of humility and understanding of how others felt - was an incredibly dangerous thing to do. I'm not going to say that it was, itself, a dickish thing to do. I just think it was an extremely naive way to act in the volatile circumstances that had arisen at the time, in which any attempt to go meta this way would quite predictably have caused hurt and anger.

Jean offers other examples of supposed incivility, but these are to a couple of posts by Ophelia Benson that don't actually seem uncivil at all. In each case she responds in a way that is forthright, but not out of place on her own blog, to other people going meta in ways that understandably annoyed her. That's not to say that I necessarily feel the same annoyance towards Julian Baggini, for example, that Ophelia does - for a start, she has had personal dealings that she refers to briefly and which I have obviously not had. The whole thing can soon get complicated. But the kind of meta-comment by Julian that Ophelia quotes will inevitably produce annoyance, and it's no use then using a reasonably civil expression of that annoyance - or even a not-so-civil one if that's how you perceive it - as evidence for the initial complaints about incivility.

There's a lot more to say about all of this, but I should comment just very briefly that Jean makes clear that she does actually support arguments for certain things not being said in "the public square" - by which she apparently means not being said in books, journals, etc., aimed at a broad, educated audience. These things should be discussed in academic journals, philosophy classes and seminars, and the like, she thinks, but they should not be said more widely. She gives, as an example, her view that I should not be defending moral error theory in the public square. She also supports the view that Jerry Coyne's stance in his New Republic piece was "unwise".

Now that's a large topic. But I just want to highlight how surprising, if refreshingly honest, it is. Jean says that she's not telling people in the second person to "Shut up," but regardless of whether she issues a command in the second person or merely says, "Russell should not say X or Y in the public square," the effect is much the same. It's being put that certain things should not be said except to a specialised audience of philosophers and philosophy students. Among those things are claims about the incompatibility of science and religion (though she is less confident about this than about promulgating moral error theory).

Now, I'm not someone who defends telling the truth at all costs. If the proverbial Nazi death-squad comes knocking on my door looking for Jews and homosexuals whose location I happen to know ... believe me, I'll do whatever I can to keep my knowledge secret and to mislead the Nazis as well as I'm able. There are many such examples, some of them much more everyday. I'm not committed in a fanatical way to telling the truth.

Perhaps there are utilitarian (or similar) reasons not to say certain things too widely, or even reasons to go out and tell the Folk noble lies that, if believed, will make the world a better place (based on some standard of "better" that most of us would subscribe to, such as having less pain and suffering). I can't rule any of that out, and certainly not in the space of a blog post. But it shouldn't be surprising that many people on the Gnu Atheist side of the debate get the impression that a lot of this ongoing conflict is not really about incivility. Some part of it, at least, really is about whether certain things should be said at all, even in a civil way, out there in the public square. Even if we're not addressed in the second person and directly told, "Shut up!" there are some things that at least some of our opponents just don't want us to say. This comes to much the same thing when we're part of the audience to which it's communicated.

And it produces a reaction.


Matthew said...

A thoroughly excellent post.

March Hare said...

How dare someone say that you should limit what you say in the public sphere? As long as you do not cause incitement to violence (and even then I am on the fence) then you should be allowed to say whatever you want about any topic. The fact someone is trying to limit your speech with regards to your field of expertise is deeply troubling.

Jean Kazez wants to ban talk of moral error theory on the basis of what? How 'the folk' might react to it? In case they think that it leads to the same moral quagmire the religious have always said atheism would?

I came to a form of moral error theory by myself and because Jean thinks that people shouldn't be allowed to discuss it in front of non-professionals I am not allowed to benefit from the body of work that already exists? What if this was applied to other areas like Calculus, Physics, Economics etc.? How much does this person want to retard progress because she fears the results?

This idea is much more dangerous than the civility argument and must be met head on. It leads to the worst forms of conservatism and stops social, economic and ethical progress in their tracks.

When some areas are out of bounds of the public sphere they become domains of bodies of experts who are looked to for guidance but cannot be criticized since they have closed off all scrutiny. Who can criticize John Smith when only he has the golden plates?

Mark Jones said...

Yes, I second that.

So Jean is making the point that while science and religion can be demonstrated incompatible in many individual details, it cannot be demonstrated incompatible in the round; or, at least, it's a complicated question that touches on many areas where 'philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and logic intersect', as it is for meta-ethics.

And for this reason, it's not appropriate to claim in public that science and religion are incompatible, even if many thinkers have come to that conclusion.

This seems a bold claim, for a restriction of our freedom of speech, and maybe a tad patronising. As I've always said, I think it *could* be a valid claim if it could be shown that some harm is being caused by the expression of this great truth, but so far, we have not seen any evidence of this. That is, I've not seen how saying that science and religion are epistemically or fundamentally incompatible causes problems that justify this restriction of negative liberty.

Further, despite the complicated nature of the compatibility question, it doesn't seem to stop some organisations and individuals from suggesting that science and religion *are* compatible, so I hope Jean condemns any organisation or person that would suggest *that*, by the same token.

And vague 'DBAD' type talk is *really* counter-productive, as Russell details so well here.

Russell Blackford said...

To be fair to her, she's not suggesting a ban in the sense of a law against it. But yes, the discussion has moved in an interesting direction here.

Mark Jones said...

Oh, yes, it's a call for self-censorship, I suppose, so anti-gnus aren't looking for this restriction of liberty, but expecting gnus to apply it to themselves. In the same way as, presumably, anti-gnus apply it to themselves?

Of course, I think some of us see anti-gnus preaching what they don't practise, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong. Though they are, I think :-).

Andy said...

Well, the anti-gnu faction has redefined "civility" for their own purposes, haven't they?. We normally conceive of "civility" as a particular way in which someone might express an idea to someone else. But when the anti-gnus use the word "civility," I often have the sense that they're not referring to the manner in which some gnu has expressed an idea, rather, they're referring to the idea itself. They don't want certain ideas expressed, irrespective of how they're expressed. That's fine, I suppose, especially if they're as up front about it as Kazez is--but it has little to do with actual civility. More often it's about re-enforcing taboos.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I just submitted this to Jean's blog:


It looks like you only reject public discussions of metaethics when they challenge your preferred metaethical views. You've previously stated that moral realism is the right strategy in public debates. Now you're saying the public shouldn't be worrying about metaethics, period. So experts who support moral realism should present their view to the public, and all opposition should be silenced? Even when moral anti-realism is a widely respected alternative? I find that hard to swallow.

Do you also think that economic theories should not be discussed in public? After all, you need to study economics a great deal if you want to intelligently analyze the discourse. Does this mean Paul Krugman's NY Times column should be trashed?

You say error theory should not be foisted upon the public. Of course you're right, because "foist" implies a fraudulent imposition. I think Russell would agree that error theory should not be foisted on anyone. But what you are suggesting is that moral realism be authoritatively presented to the public as the only option. You want to give the public the appearance that not only is moral realism favored by all the experts (which isn't true), but that there aren't even any alternatives worth mentioning. If that isn't foisting a metaethical theory on the public, then what is?

Richard Wein said...

What I see going on here is the normal argy-bargy of political/moral discourse. Accommodationists are not just making a factual criticism of the views of new atheists. They are making a political/moral criticism of their behaviour (in expressing those views). Since the new atheists don't accept that there's anything politically/morally wrong with their behaviour, they naturally resent those criticisms, and target their own political/moral criticisms at the behaviour of the accommodationists (in making the original criticisms).

I call this a "political/moral" discourse because it's not just a neutral dispute over facts. It's an attempt (in part) to exercise moral suasion, to make the other party feel that they morally _ought_ to behave in a particular way. As a moral anti-realist I say that there are no such "oughts", so an important part of the dispute is not over a matter of fact but between competing preferences. (Although there are matters of fact involved as well.)

Of course, in making this comment I'm stepping back from the political/moral discourse and attempting to give a neutral, analytical explanation of it, as an outsider. Perhaps the reason I'm inclined to do this (rather than participating in the discourse as a political/moral actor) is because I don't have strong feelings about it. I have some sympathy with both sides.

Russell Blackford said...

There are at least hypothetical imperatives, though, Richard. I suppose Jean might, in theory, be able to show that I'll dash my own hopes or frustrate my own aims, or some such thing, if I argue for an anti-realist metaethical theory in the public square. By my own standards, my actions might be counterproductive and contra-indicated.

I don't think that's the case, though it might be true that I'd need to be careful how I did it.

Jean Kazez said...

Russell, When I linked to the three B&W posts, the primary reason was to clarify which critics of new atheism were on my mind--Plait, Baggini, Lovley. You had responded to my post by focusing on Mooney-contra-Coyne, an example of someone being against candor. It was important to note that I had in mind an attitude that's pro-candor, anti-contempt. It so happens that in those three threads, there is also incivility (imho) but that wasn't my main reason for linking to them. The point of telling a story is to do something different than amassing bits of evidence. Either the story rings true, given what people have read over the years, or it doesn't. I'm not utterly shocked that to you it doesn't!

You're quite right that new atheists blogs might not be any more uncivil than others, but I really wasn't making that comparison. I'm not saying "gnu" atheists are gnastier than other people on the internet, but that the tone of public atheism has gradually changed.

Blake Stacey said...

I grew up on books by Isaac Asimov and Richard Feynman — both of them irreligious people from a culturally Jewish background. In their books, both men discussed their atheism openly. Asimov admitted his godlessness on the back cover of his autobiography, for crying out loud. So, I'm used to seeing all this happen "in the public square". For me, that's the status quo. Now, I see people trying to re-establish a standard of decorum which never really existed, or existed only because they weren't looking.

These things should be discussed in academic journals, philosophy classes and seminars, and the like, she thinks, but they should not be said more widely. She gives, as an example, her view that I should not be defending moral error theory in the public square.

So, you write about moral error theory in the Journal of Abstruse Philosophical Jargon. And then some college student is reading J. Abs. Phil. Jar. for a class project, notices your article, writes a blog post quoting you, and suddenly your words are crawling up Reddit.

M Oswell said...

It's great to have someone putting such excellent ideas where everyone who is online can read them. That's what the Internet was supposed to be about (back in the beginning at least).

These types comments remind me of the way that many of my oldest relatives thought that it might be ok for someone to be gay, but they should just keep it to themselves. It's the open manner in which folks act that brought them the greatest grief, which seemed crazy to me.

Ophelia Benson said...

That may be how things appear to Jean, but as I suggested in my response and my further thoughts over the past few days, it's not how things seem to me at all.

Nor to me, as I said on the original post (which linked to yet another putative gnuish post of mine along with one of Jerry Coyne's).

More than that, though, I really think it's a good deal too self-congratulatory to "frame" one's own side of a debate as The Grownups and the other side as The Children. Anti-gnus are always painting gnus as being conceited and self-congratulatory, but I don't think I've ever gone quite that far.

Richard Wein said...


Yes, but it seems pretty clear to me that Jean isn't just giving you practical advice about how best to achieve _your_ objectives. She may be assuming a considerable degree of commonality between your objectives and hers, but it's her own objectives she wants you to pursue, regardless of whether those are quite the same as yours.


It's not just about what's true (or what one judges it's rational to believe). It's also about whether a belief is beneficial/harmful. One could argue that moral anti-realism is harmful to society, and that's a reason to keep quiet about it even if it's true (and let moral realists promote their view unopposed even if it's irrational and false).

Having said that, I note that the views Jean wants us to keep quiet about appear to be ones she disagrees with. I would be more impressed if she was arguing that we (and she) should keep quiet about views she holds herself.

Thanny said...

Ah, so it's "don't discuss those highfalutin topics in front of the heathens".

How very arrogant.

I haven't read enough from her to reach any kind of definitive conclusion, but thus far, Kazez very much brings to mind the idea that one may be educated far beyond one's capacity to undertake rational thought.

Anonymous said...

Well, I don't want to speak for her, but I think her main point with the example of morality is that if you attach any form of moral anti-realism to atheism, people who aren't aware of the nuances of those positions will, in fact, conclude that moral anti-realism means that there really are no morals at all, and will at best associate with naive forms of relativism. This, then, will in their minds support the conclusion that atheists have no morals. That would not be a good thing.

The relevant quote from her article:

"A view Russell's been promoting lately is not science/religion incompatibility but atheism/objective morality incompatibility. He argues that atheism leads to an "error theory" of morality like that defended by J. L. Mackie and Richard Joyce. Take the sentence below--

Torturing babies just for fun is wrong.

Most people think it's true. The error theory disputes this. Mackie says all moral statements are false, while Joyce just says they're not true. (There's a difference--with different logical problems whichever way you go.)

Suppose Russell gets lots of fame and acclaim, and starts promoting the error theory all over the place. So he starts influencing people to think that atheists must believe the sentence above is false, or at least not true. I wouldn't hesitate to say I thought that was a bad idea. It wouldn't be my place to address him in the second person and tell him what to talk about, but I'd be perfectly entitled to my opinion that spreading this view is unwise."

Similar comments can be made about insisting that religion and science are incompatible, and associating that with an atheist or, in particular, a scientific position. If you were sure you were right, it might be worth taking the risk, but incompatibilists cannot be sure that they're right -- the evidence doesn't support it -- and they risk making the mistrust of science by religious people worse while they themselves are trying to, at least, eliminate the effects of that mistrust.

Jeremiah said...

Jean said in her original article:
"It's a highly technical area of philosophy, where philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and logic intersect. There is simply no way that the ordinary person, with little or no education in philosophy, can get a grip on the pertinent issues."

Well, I would probably qualify as 'ordinary' in that I only have a 2 year degree in computer science and never took a philosophy class in my life. When I read the above I just get a picture of Jack Nicholson screaming "You can't handle the truth!" :)

In any event, in my opinion if you recognize an area where you are worried that if you brought your views (error theory or atheism or whatever) out in the open that they would be interpreted the wrong way (like the torturing babies example) then what that tells me is that this isn't an area where you should stay silent on, but in contrary it is an area where even more public exposure is needed. It tells me that here is something that people need to be better educated about, an opportunity, not something to avoid and keep in the closet.

H.H. said...

I'm not saying "gnu" atheists are gnastier than other people on the internet, but that the tone of public atheism has gradually changed.

Oh, it has changed. In the past, atheists often wrote apologetically about their atheism in a defensive manner. The New Atheists are far more assertive both about the strengths of the arguments for atheism and the weaknesses of theism, both in terms of logical argument and moral practice. The new atheists are no longer content to defend a private viewpoint, but out to change minds to their way of thinking.

Some people think the new atheists have no business trying to change other people's minds, but I have yet to see a compelling reason why this should be so, especially if the new atheists are correct.

Anonymous said...

Here, to me, is the real crux of the problem. If Jean Kazez and/or anyone else has good arguments for WHY, exactly, we ought not to say this or that in the wider public sphere, they are of course free to make those arguments. I have not seen anything resembling such arguments. I've seen shallow, self-serving metaphors like JK's re-telling of the naked emperor trope; I've seen tons of concern-trolling worries about "tone" with few or no examples and no concrete discussions of what harm is being done by the oh-so-worrisome tone at issue; I've seen willful distortions, outright lies, and vicious personal attacks like those of "Tom Johnson" aka "You're Not Helping" guy, and I've seen those lies embraced and promoted by those who ought to know better, over the clearly-stated objections of those who clearly *DID* know better. What I have most notably NOT seen is anything resembling an argument, let alone a GOOD argument.

There is a right way and a wrong way to "go meta." Talking about tone without being clear exactly what you mean (with examples!) and without making a case (with evidence and arguments!) that the tone you are talking about could have some sort of plausible, concrete bad effects is NOT the right way. In fact, unless someone provides me with some reason to think otherwise, I must judge such inherently flimsy and emotive attacks -- "attacks" mind you, not "arguments," because no arguments are being made -- to be no more than underhanded rhetorical maneuvers intended to shut opponents down by portraying them as hostile and unreasonable and rude. If any of the people concerned about tone would just be clear about what concerns them and provide some arguments -- any decent argument whatsoever! -- that the tone is in fact harmful, those of us whose tone is such a constant and recurring topic for discussion might actually consider modifying that tone. But they haven't.

Blake Stacey said...

I've seen tons of concern-trolling worries about "tone" with few or no examples and no concrete discussions of what harm is being done by the oh-so-worrisome tone at issue;

What makes this worse is that "tone" — the emotional atmosphere created by words placed in sequence — is a legitimate topic of discussion. Creating a desired "tone" is part of the writer's craft, and learning how to modulate "tone" through vocabulary, syntax and other choices is part of becoming a novelist or an essayist. Assertions about "tone" which really just boil down to "shut up, that's why!" do a disservice to scholars, students and admirers of the written word.

(Russell has said something like this in the past, but I think it's a point worth making again.)

Dave Ricks said...

Going meta reminds me, in the 1980s I played trumpet with a sax player Joe Ferguson who told me, "I don't mind if someone takes it out [outré], as long as they know when to take it back in."

I see "Reply to Blackford" as a "Considered Harmful" essay. The essay "Considered Harmful" Essays Considered Harmful offers observations and recommends alternatives.

Jason Streitfeld said...

The point I was initially making was that Jean's argument isn't about metaethics, but just about metaethical positions she doesn't like. I don't think she had been clear about that. I'm still not clear on whether or not her position extends to all varieties of anti-realism, or just error theory, but she seems to be against atheists challenging moral realism in the public sphere, period.

The problem is that her argument is based on a very misleading and simplistic representation of anti-realism. She says she's basing her position on her own experiences trying to teach error theory to college students, but all that shows is that she's not the person to introduce error theory into the public debate. It doesn't mean other people can't do it effectively. And it doesn't mean that doing so would have any deleterious effects on public perceptions of atheism, which seems to be her primary concern.

There already is a strong public perception that atheism is incompatible with objective morality. Not that I have a problem with that. But add the public perception that religion somehow provides a philosophically grounded moral framework, and you've got a public in need of education.

Jean seems content to just let this situation go, as if nothing could be done about it, even though she recognizes that religious dogma is hampering public discourse. I think it's a defeatist attitude.

Unknown said...

Science seems to contains many ideas that hard to understand for scientists, let alone "ordinary" people. Yet that has not stopped scientists from attempting to explain these difficult concepts to the public. Indeed, many see it as part of their duties as a scientist. We have many excellent books that will explain to a lay person the basics of evolution, relativity, QED, quantum theory and more. There really is no excuse for the public to be ignorant of these things.

Yet Kazez does not feel the same about philosophy. She claims it is so difficult that discussion must be kept hidden from the public because she fears the public will not understand.

Well sorry, I am not accepting of that. If Kazez and other philosophers cannot explain philosophy in a way that the public will understand then it suggests they (the philosophers) are lacking a fundamental understanding of their subject.

Actually I do not think philosophers do lack such an understanding, since there have been philosophers who have been able to explain their field to the public quite ably. Bertrand Russell is the outstanding example of course, but today we have A.C.Grayling who does an excellent job.

I am at a loss to understand Kazez's motivations in wanting to keep the public out of philosophy, but none of the theories I come up with reflect well on her.

Jean Kazez said...

I find this whole discussion very strange. If a mathematician said there were some issues that can't be explained to a broad public, everyone would agree. Ditto: a physicist, a linguist, a biologist, etc. But if a philosopher says this, it's "off with her head!" She's got to be some sort of terrible elitist. Or--she must just be bad teacher!

As to whether I'm willing to try to explain philosophy to the segment of the public that's interested in reading philosophy books...um, obviously yes. That's what I've done in two books. One has a chapter on the nature of moral truth.

Anyone who really wants to work hard can read a lot of philosophy and learn all the metaethics they want. This does not prove it's wise for atheists to promote the error theory (in particular) to the wider public.

The error theory says very strange things--like that we should not believe murder is wrong. "Murder is wrong" is not true. "Murder is not wrong" is not true either. Richard Joyce himself acknowledges the theory sounds appalling (in his most recent book). I think for atheists to promote that theory very publicly would interfere with getting the message out that atheists are trustworthy, good, normal people.

By the way, I'd be very surprised if there weren't some error theorists who think the theory is for the philosophical study only (maybe Joyce--I haven't read his first book). Many error theorists think the error is a good error--Joyce wants the "myth of morality" to thrive. So the last thing they want is for its mythical nature to be exposed.

Atheism and the error theory do make strange bedfellows. If the morality myth is OK, even if a myth, why isn't the God myth OK, even if a myth? There might be an answer, but at least it's going to sound peculiar supporting some myths and attacking others.

Jason Streitfeld said...

If you're referring to me, Jean, I didn't mean that you were a bad teacher, but only that you're not the right person to promote error theory to a wider audience. Maybe I'm being too harsh, but I think that some people are probably better at communicating error theory than others, and your negative experiences with it in the classroom (coupled with the way you have been discussing it lately) suggest to me that you're not the best at communicating it.

A conscientious error theorist speaking to the general public would not simply say, "it is false that murder is wrong." They would rather say that "murder is wrong" can be true in some relevant senses, and that we are justified in opposing murder, but that it is neither true nor false in the moral sense, and that we should stop thinking that our moral oughts had more weight than our other oughts. This is an important message for the public, I think, given the current popular attitudes towards atheism and morality. (Though, as I've indicated already, I wouldn't put error theory ahead of noncognitivism.)

Anonymous said...

Well, people are asking about specifics about "tone", so let me give some. Let me start with the least offensive of the group, Dawkins and Dennett.

The title of Dawkins' big book on religion, the book that he explicitly says -- in the paperback edition, at least -- that he wants to use to convince religious people to not be religious anymore? "The God Delusion". I couldn't find the quote, but I know I referenced it before where Dennett asks politely if religious people might consider whether they are delusional.

Now, here's the issue: Delusional is associated with psychological disorders. In the common parlance, being delusional is not a normal state of events. Moreover, all mainstream religion would not be considered delusional by the standards of psychology, for very good reasons. And Dawkins certainly and Dennett likely are not qualified to disagree with psychologists on that. So, to claim delusional is underevidenced to say the least.

And the worst part is that when you read their books, what they CAN support is "possibly wrong", not "possibly delusional".

So, would it have made any difference content-wise for Dawkins' book to be named "The God Error"? For Dennett to have asked religious people to consider whether they might be wrong? Nope; that's what the evidence supports. But it does matter a lot to the tone of the discussion. I think I have a right to be offended by being called delusional, and I take no offence at someone who disagrees with me suggesting that I am or might be wrong.

Now, add in oft-made claims about how theists "lie" when they express the beliefs they actually hold, which is in contradiction of the very meaning of the term. We, according to some, "lie to our children" about the beliefs we actually hold. I don't have direct cites for that one, but it's not uncommon. I'm not lying if I express my beliefs, and calling it lying just makes it sound like I'm deliberately telling a falsehood. I'm not. The only argument for that is the rather weak logical chain of "It's a falsehood, you're saying it, so you're expressing a falsehood and that's lying", which is utterly ridiculous.

Both of these foster the attitude that theists really know or ought to know that God doesn't exist, but don't want to admit that. Those who have done the research and disagree on that would have as much right to be miffed as the meta issues mentioned here.

Add in Jerry Coyne's consistent use of "Jebus" instead of Jesus, reflecting a completely lack of respect for ANY Christian, even those who might be willing to approach it intellectually.

Add in comments about Sky Fairies and Imaginary Friends and all sorts of characterizations like that that are remarkably commonplace in common discussions of it.

Yeah, there's plenty of evidence that in some cases the tone's not exactly reasonable ... even among those who are better than most at it, like Dawkins and Dennett.

Tulse said...

"If a mathematician said there were some issues that can't be explained to a broad public, everyone would agree."
Nonsense -- there are plenty of popular books on complex mathematics (consider, for example, Gleik's chaos book, or Hofstader's Goedel, Escher, Bach, or any of a vast array of books on quantum mechanics). But far more to the point, no one would say that mathematicians shouldn't try to explain complex mathematics to the public. Your position seems to argue that academics should never try to elevate the understanding of the general public on some confusing issues, and that is grossly paternalistic -- it's like suggesting that we should keep teaching kids about Santa Claus to keep them in line...oh, wait...

Jeremiah said...

Error theory might say that "murder is not wrong" but as far as I know it doesn't say that you can't have a moral consensus, it just says that you don't have an external justification for whatever that consensus is. I think the idea that if error theory is unleashed upon the world it will destroy "the myth of morality" is giving philosophy a little too much credit. I think it is a stretch to think that such knowledge is going to override thousands or millions of years of evolutionary empathy and predisposition for cooperation.

Now I could sympathize with the parallel you are trying to draw with the myths if you say that morality is supposed to objectively tell us what is right and wrong then it is a false belief, or myth, just like religions are. Personally I wouldn't define morality so narrowly. People make decisions in regards with how to act towards each other. It is fairly consistent across cultures, and to a lesser degree across species. Putting people in similar situations you can see a broad consensus on many issues. Some sort of evaluation process is occurring and I think that is what 'morality' is. That is self-evident I think, but our definition of morality is a circular definition of vague words. Morality is deciding between what is good and bad. Good and bad is a continuum between morally positive and negative actions. That doesn't tell us anything. To a degree I think discussions on morality get off track because we have created this edifice of a definition and then go about trying to fit the world into the definition rather than looking at the world around us and tailoring our definition to what we observe.

Matti K. said...

Ms. Kazez said:

"I find this whole discussion very strange. If a mathematician said there were some issues that can't be explained to a broad public, everyone would agree. Ditto: a physicist, a linguist, a biologist, etc. But if a philosopher says this, it's "off with her head!" She's got to be some sort of terrible elitist".

I think when a mathematician or a scientist says that his/her field cannot be explained properly to the layman, he/she usually means that it is a waste of time. They do not object if someone else tries. After all, there are some wonderful populizers os science around. The scientists certainly do not think that attempts to disseminate their field are harmful as such.

I have understood that Ms. Kazez actually thinks that speaking out on certain issues of philosophy or the incompatibility of science and religion is actually bad for the common good.

Have I understood correctly? If I have, I conclude that the comparison made by Ms. Kazez is not valid.

Svlad Cjelli said...

"Anyone who really wants to work hard can read a lot of philosophy and learn all the metaethics they want."

Thank you, good Massa! Thank you so much!

Tim Martin said...

Well said!

Thanny said...

"If a mathematician said there were some issues that can't be explained to a broad public, everyone would agree. Ditto: a physicist, a linguist, a biologist, etc."

This simply isn't true. There are countless books by members of all those professions which are nothing but attempts to explain difficult concepts to a broad public, providing any prerequisites along the way.

An excellent example of the first is Jason Rosenhouse's The Monty Hall Problem, which presents Bayesian solutions to the problem, providing a workable precis of the theory, with both formal and plain-language explanations of almost every step.

In general, if you want counterexamples to your claim, just visit a few science blogs.

Kirth Gersen said...

"If a mathematician said there were some issues that can't be explained to a broad public, everyone would agree. Ditto: a physicist, a linguist, a biologist, etc."

Everyone would most certainly not agree. I'm a scientist, and I strongly disagree. There are some minute details the public might not grasp the first time through, but that's not to say they wouldn't understand a broad outline. And that's talking only about quick "sound bites." To say these things "can't be explained" -- with no disclaimer -- is outright wrong.

H.H. said...

Jean Kazez asked...

If the morality myth is OK, even if a myth, why isn't the God myth OK, even if a myth?

Well, we really can't have a discussion whether the god myth is "okay" until we can reach a consensus that it is a myth. See, there still seems to be a disturbing number of people who haven't gotten that memo and believe that at least some gods are real. This delusion been a problem for humanity for several centuries now.

So, Jean, the first order of business is to convince people that god is a myth, then we can see how many continue find god useful as a myth.

Or are you suggesting a stratified social strategy in which elite intellectuals disingenuously work to prop up the god myth for the benefit of the unwashed proletariat who are incapable of coming to grips with such a difficult truth? One view of reality for us, another for them? Be honest, now.

Jeremiah said...


"what they CAN support is "possibly wrong", not "possibly delusional""

What exactly is the difference? You seem to be hinging on a DSM clinical definition of the word rather than its actual meaning which is just "something that is believed to be true or real but that is actually false or unreal". Obviously atheists are going to agree that a belief in god is a belief that is believed to be true but is actually false.

"Now, add in oft-made claims about how theists "lie" when they express the beliefs they actually hold"

I am not sure where you get the 'oft-made' from. I can't think of anyone off hand that makes such a claim. When someone tells me their religious views I always take them at face value. Perhaps you are referring to the idea that a lot of people identify with a religion more on cultural grounds than theological ones. But claiming that someone has kind of defaulted into their beliefs without examining them is different than claiming that they are lying about them.

"Add in comments about Sky Fairies and Imaginary Friends and all sorts of characterizations like that that are remarkably commonplace in common discussions of it."

The only way that such a thing could be construed as somehow insulting is if you give special reverence to one class of imaginary beings (god) and not others (fairies). Saying that one imaginary being is similar to another in that we have no evidence, I don't see how that could possibly be insulting on its face. Is it insulting to compare unicorns to dragons? The nature of the 'insult' lies in the fact that things like sky faeries are 'obviously absurd' and how dare you compare them to my god which is obviously a Very Serious Issue. The very point of such comparisons is to point out that there is no reason to give things like gods that extra importance.

I'll grant that the Jebus one would be hard to define as anything but a direct mocking though.

Russell Blackford said...

I do think that someone who said directly to a religious person, "Frak off with your frakking sky-fairy, you frakking frakker!" would pretty obviously be demonstrating hostility and personal contempt. But: (a) how often does this sort of language actually happen (the Tom Johnson story was bogus, after all)? (b) to the extent that it ever happens, does it happen more than similar language about politics, or sport, or anything else? and (c) what's the social context where it is supposed to happen (the robust or even gnasty language of the schoolyard or of internet flamewars can involve almost any topic of disagreement).

Anyway, Jean now seems to be saying that her fable wasn't about incivility, even though its events involve people being uncivil. The incivility is meant to be a metaphor for something else that has changed in the discussion. Or maybe I still don't understand.

qbsmd said...

I think part of the problem is that the nature of discourse in the public sphere is limited to soundbites. Ideas like "you're being a dick" or "of course science and religion are compatible; there's a religious scientist right over there" echo well. Conversely an idea like "religion requires respect for authority or revelation, and appeals to supernatural explanations, which have resulted in innumerable different and incompatible results, while science relies on empiricism to approach objective knowledge of the universe, and assumes naturalism so investigation can always continue, and has proven to yield powerful results, therefore anyone who understands the epistemological basis for that power should also understand the reasons for more generally rejecting authority, revelation, and supernaturalism" requires some effort to process, which is apparently too much for it to carry as effectively.

Kazez could be interpreted as saying something like "don't say things that convert into poor soundbites, because those soundbites are all that most people will hear". I think the level of conversation needs to be raised beyond soundbites, but have no relevant useful advice.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"Anyway, Jean now seems to be saying that her fable wasn't about incivility"

Not so as I can tell. She sums up her reply as follows:

"Long story (sorry!) short: Russell has really just sidestepped what my 'gnu' story was about. It was about critics of contempt who are all for candor. On the other hand, if some do say should not be said (about some topics), I fail to see what's surprising or upsetting about that."

The "critics of contempt" is very much about civility. It's just that now Kazez has added her own digression (which seems unrelated to the original "The Emperor's Gnu Clothes" story) about circumstances where full candor is possibly ill-advised.

Rieux said...

Now, add in oft-made claims about how theists "lie" when they express the beliefs they actually hold"

And then Jeremiah:
I am not sure where you get the 'oft-made' from. I can't think of anyone off hand that makes such a claim.

Sam Harris has. (I can't substantiate "oft-made.") From his 2007 Beliefnet debate with Andrew Sullivan:

You [Sullivan] seem to have taken particular offense at my imputing self-deception and/or dishonesty to the faithful. I make no apologies for this. One of the greatest problems with religion is that it is built, to a remarkable degree, upon lies. Mommy claims to know that Granny went straight to heaven after she died. But Mommy doesn't actually know this. The truth is that, while Mommy may be rigorously honest on any other subject, in this instance she doesn't want to distinguish between what she really knows (i.e. what she has good reasons to believe) and 1) what she wants to be true, or 2) what will keep her children from grieving too much in Granny's absence. She is lying--either to herself or to her children--but we've all agreed not to talk about it. Rather than teach our children to grieve, we teach them to lie to themselves.


Whether what Harris describes is really a "lie" is debatable, I suppose, but FWIW in the stated terms it seems persuasive to me. verbosestoic's objection seems overly pearl-clutching; it's hard to be too terribly sympathetic to a claim that Harris's argument is personally offensive. The complaint sounds like garden-variety religious privilege—here, indignant offense at the fact that someone has dared to openly and non-deferentially criticize religious ideas—to me.

Dave Ricks said...

verbosetoic wrote: Add in Jerry Coyne's consistent use of "Jebus" instead of Jesus, reflecting a completely lack of respect for ANY Christian, even those who might be willing to approach it intellectually.

Well, thank you for raising this example about Jerry's tone (and content), so I can show how you're mistaken about Jerry and his respect for people versus rationalizations. For one thing, when Jerry talked with the First United Methodist Church of Chicago, you can be sure that: 1) He was genuinely respectful toward the people, and 2) He did NOT say "Jebus" instead of "Jesus". So your claim about Jerry Coyne's consistent use of "Jebus" instead of Jesus is untrue.

In my experience, I've seen Jerry write "Jebus" to mock something specific about religious claims and their rationalizations -- not about the people who hold the beliefs and make the rationalizations.

As a notation, say the nth religious interpretation makes a set of claims Cn = {Cn1, Cn2, Cn3, …}. For someone who claims the Biblical flood really happened, and some other properties of their god are true, we could catalog that nth set of claims as Cn with n=42. For a believer more "sophisticated" (by some definition, not mine) who believes the Biblical flood was metaphorical, but other parts of the Bible are true literally, we could catalog that nth set of claims (literal plus metaphorical) as Cn with n=235. How does a particular believer justify their favorite set of claims Cn?

Consider a gap in scientific knowledge (e.g., in the Big Bang, where I don't know what happened before a time of 10 to the minus 43 seconds). When someone sees a gap in science and says, "Therefore my favorite set of claims Cn is true", your jaw has to drop at the leap of rationalization. To give that type of leap a name, you might call it "gap therefore Jesus" or "gap therefore Jebus". Mocking that leap of rationalization (in response to a stimulus like a gap) is different than mocking a person.

In my experience, Jerry writes "Jebus" to mean: "the nth set of claims Cn rationalized by a non sequitur". That is different from "the nth set of claims Cn held without examination". And in either case, that would be different than mocking a person for holding a belief.

Anonymous said...


What you claim is the meaning of "delusional" seems to me to map closer to "wrong" than delusional. We generally don't call someone delusional just for believing something that we think is wrong. At the very least, we usually do it when we think that they themselves by what they themselves know should think the thing they think true is false. Most often, we make a claim about there being other factors that are blocking them from ACCEPTING what they really do know themselves. That's not the case for many of the theists that they'd be addressing, nor for most of the theists that will read their works with an open mind.

At any rate, "delusional" is certainly has much more serious connotations than wrong; it does seem worse, even in common discussion, partly (I think) because of the psychological definition of it. If, essentially, Dawkins and Dennett just wanted to say that we were -- or might be -- wrong, why use the term "delusional" instead of wrong? Why not "The God Error"?

Because, rightly or wrongly, a lot of people are going to jump to the psychological meaning of "delusional" and take those statements as a comment on our mental health. That, surely, is not an appropriate tone to take in a reasonable discussion on the matter.

Also, as I went on to say, it isn't someone saying "You don't really believe that" (generally) but things like "By teaching your children your religion, you're lying to them". I'll get into this more later with the specific claim from Harris, but I have had it said fairly often to me or others that simply expressing my belief is "lying", and having that defended by "well, you're saying something false". That's not what the term "lying" means, and if you accuse me of lying IN ANY WAY you call me a liar, and that's something that I'm going to rightly be annoyed by being called a liar when I am, in fact, expressing what I actually believe. But this might be something that suffers from being reduced to sound bytes.

Now, asking why I believe in God and not in fairies might be an interesting point in a debate. However, using the term "Sky Fairy" to describe God when talking to me about it, or saying that I have an "Imaginary Friend" when we are talking about other things is not. It has nothing to do with reverence for the concept, but merely an understanding of who you're talking to. You'd be talking to a person who does not think that God is the same as a Sky Fairy or an Imaginary Friend. In that discussion, that would be what is at stake. That sort of mocking adds nothing to the debate and is merely dismissing the actual beliefs of the person for cheap rhetorical mocking. Again, that's not a tone that will work well in fostering reasoned and reasonable debate, as it will quite rightly annoy them.

I find it puzzling that you find calling Jesus "Jebus" to be direct mocking, but not calling God "Sky Fairy".

Anonymous said...


I don't think holding this to the standards of sports or politics is a good way to go about it:

1) When those sorts of things happen in sports, they aren't supposed to be rational or reasonable, or any sort of actual discussion. In sports, it just is mocking and rivalry; no one's trying to make a point or actualy make a convincing argument. But even in sports, when someone IS trying to make an argument the insults fall away, and it's just numbers (and some expressions of incredulity, perhaps) that are used. For example, a few years ago there was a playoff series between the team I cheer for and another, and I opined to another fan that I thought that my team was actually going to lose. She called me out for being disloyal. I pointed out that the teams were equal except that the other team had possibly the best goaltender in the league, and I couldn't bet against them. A simple, reasonable argument. (I turned out to be wrong). So we certainly aren't after the sort of discussions that sports delivers when it is "uncivil", are we?

2) Politics is terribly uncivil, and it shouldn't be. We should be able to have reasonable discussions in it without personal attacks and excessive exaggeration and all of those other uncivil things, and it's a sad thing that we can't. Again, we probably don't want politics to be the model for these sorts of discussions.

A case can be made that since people care about this, things will get heated and so it shouldn't be taken too seriously, even though it isn't necessarily a reasonable tone. But a lot of the response on this is "There's nothing to be upset about", and I think there are reasons to even call out Dawkins and Dennett for not being careful enough in how they engage the topic.

Anonymous said...


Ah, the accusation of being "overly pearl-clutching", which is an attempt to invoke the image of little old ladies awfully aghast at something that's really minor, probably to the point where they might faint. Unfortunately, you didn't bother to ascertain how strongly I was taking that tone, that I was being so horribly offended. I'm not horribly offended. I'm annoyed, and quite rightly suspicious of how open people who say those things are to listening to my viewpoint. Your dismissal as "pearl-clutching" suggests a similar unwillingness to look at it from the perspective of someone other than yourself to see how someone might find it insulting or annoying.

Onto Harris,

First, I suspect that he doesn't give that full explanation most of the time, which is why he got called out on it, and then retreated to the explanation. But this, again, might just be an issue of soundbytes.

Second, his argument is wrong. Most of the people he's referring to there are expressing what they believe, no more, no less. If you express what you genuinely believe, you are not lying ... whether you know it or not. It's also possibly that he's mixing in an objective -- ie third party -- assessment of what they know and trying to evaluate their subjective state, but that really doesn't work if you understand the concept of "knowing that you know" and how you may know something but not know that you know it, or that you may think you know something but actually not know it.

At best, he can get to "Well, they don't tell the children their doubts", but parents do that all the time. That's clearly in "white lie" territory, and Harris does not seem to be all that careful to ensure that the negative connotations of lying are qualified in his statement. That's me giving his argument a VERY charitable interpretation, though; it's quite possible that he really doesn't see the error in his argument.

Which brings us back to soundbytes: he should be more careful before reducing that argument to "based on lies" or "dishonest" knowing the connotations of that and presumably knowing that his assessment is not exactly standard. And if he can't make that clear in the soundbyte, then perhaps he really shouldn't bring that up, knowing what tone that will set in the discussion.

Anonymous said...

Dave Ricks,

Well, I'd buy your argument about it not being consistent and was going to concede it, until I found this this morning:


"Sweet Jebus, I give up. Read what you said again, which I append for the third time: ... "

Seems consistent to me [grin].

But you kinda miss the point of why it annoys me, and that quote above is a good way to highlight that. The use of "Jebus" above? Not a problem for me. I might consider it slightly tacky -- why would he refuse to use the word at all? Kinda pointles sort of protect, ain't it? -- but not a problem. Maybe he has a personal line against swearing and so uses that to replace it. Maybe he just finds that sort of phrase cool (I've got enough of those myself). There's no obvious mocking there.

That's not the case in the case you cite where he's using it. I agree that he generally uses it in the form of arguments of "X, therefore Jesus", where X is something that doesn't seem to directly lead to any support for the theistic belief it's being used to support. Sometimes he's right, sometimes he's wrong, but that's a fair summary of the argument and while it could be slightly annoying that sort of mocking is of the argument and so acceptable.

But it isn't when he replaces "Jesus" with "Jebus". That's because his arguments are directly at religious people, and he's taking a religious term -- Jesus -- contorting THAT in a mocking way, and sticking it into an argument. Why does he have to say "Jebus" instead of "Jesus"? What content does it at? What quality does it add to the argument? None. The argument is just as clear and effective using "Jesus" instead of "Jebus". Refusing to use the terms that your opponents are using is bad enough, but then insisting on using a mocking term for what they actually use is worse.

Now, I didn't mean to imply that Coyne just is totally disrespectful of religious people, and I think the event you refer to is great and something that deserves respect. (As an aside, I don't see how it's all that different from what people like, say, Eugenie Scott have been asking atheists to do. Well, maybe she wouldn't have waded into the discussion of religion if they'd brought it up, but I actually don't really think she would ... but I don't know enough to say). However, the use of that line conveys an image of disrespect, at least in the instances where it is used. If he doesn't want to convey that impression, perhaps he does need to care about tone.

Now, neither of us know whether or not he used that word in that discussion. But I'm going to go along with you and say that he probably didn't. But that hurts your case, not mine. Because it begs the question: if he wouldn't use that term there but would on the blog, why not? Could it be that he realizes that doing so wouldn't be appropriate, because it wouldn't be appropriately respectful? And if that's the case, why isn't it there but is okay on his blog? Is it because:

1) They weren't the audience he aims that sort of line at, and he reserves it for less openminded people? Then he needs to qualify that more on his blog.

2) It would be disrespectful to say that to religious people when addressing them, but he doesn't do that on his blog, but instead primarily wants to address atheists? Good to know, then, that I can ignore his blog since he has nothing to say to me.

3) It would be disrespectful in a formal setting aimed at rational discourse, but on his blog he just lets off steam and so says things more bluntly than he would otherwise? Then what's the difference between that and framing?

Russell Blackford said...

Go to any sports forum and you'll see people getting passionate and angry with each other even while having a serious discussion of, I dunno, let's say the respective legacies of Monica Seles and Steffi Graf. On the internet people definitely don't go all civil and sweet as soon as there are serious points that they're trying to make.

And you can say that politics should be more civil, but that's shifting the goal-posts. The point is that people discussing religion on the internet are no more uncivil than people discussing these other things. It's being silly and precious to single out commenters and even posters who are attacking religion as any more uncivil than anyone else in analogous circumstances.

And you do realise that Jean is not against The God Delusion? You're defending a position much more extreme than the one Jean is defending. You seem to be saying that any robust attack on religion, using rhetorical framing or a degree of hyperbole or satire, is uncivil. But that's adopting a special rule for religion, as opposed to other things that people might be passionately opposed to and see as evils - capitalism, or socialism, or whatever. This double standard is exactly what people like me don't accept.

Anonymous said...


Let me expand my argument about sports and why it's a bad example, then. My point is that there are cases in sports where incivility is considered not only reasonable, but appropriate and even beneficial, but those are only the cases of simple rivalry ("Leafs suck/Habs rule!") and not of serious discussion. Incivility does happen in more serious discussions, but it seems to me that at best that's considered to be unfortunate but understandable. It's not considered to be beneficial or the right way to have such discussions, but is just what happens when people talk about things they're passionate about. And while I don't care for either of these cases and, as you might suspect from my nickname, am suspicious of anything "passionate", but that's my view: it's understandable that it happens but it doesn't add anything to the discussion (and might impede it).

So my question to you on that is: how do you view it when that sort of thing happens in serious sports discussions/political discussions/philosophical discussions/etc? As something understandable but unfortunate, as necessary, as an expression of honesty, or somewhere in-between?

As for politics, my comment there is that to say that what you see is no worse than politics is not a good argument because politics is noted for being uncivil to a large and quite harmful degree. In general, there is a perception that politics is all about attacking the character of your opponents and not about making or proving any serious points. If you take the model of politics as your guide, it would be fair to say that the rhetoric involved there is so strong that it precludes rational discussion. And I thought it a given that promoting rational discussion and coming to consensus or changing minds rationally was an aim here. Politics does not do that, and so is a bad example. Is the tone worse, say, than the average academic discussion? Is that a better model to aim for? There is passionate disagreement without the personal attacks in academic papers, as far as I can see.

I never claimed to speak for Jean, and I'm not sure that we even disagree that much. Remember that I claimed that Dawkins and Dennett were among the BETTER ones; that I take some -- in my mind, quite justified -- umbrage at being called delusional is scant evidence that I consider the book itself really bad.

Finally, you are overgeneralizing my point. Someone asked about examples of tones that were a problem. I gave them, with reasons why. That doesn't mean that any use of rhetoric or satire counts, as I only said that those specific ones did. My point is that some uses of rhetoric and sature can be legitimately insulting, and at best I want people to own up to their rhetoric, and so if it does legitimately insult someone I want them to say "Yes, and I meant that" (at which I think I can use deliberately aiming to insult their opponents against them) or "Oops, I didn't mean it that way, sorry" which is a point in their favour. Yes, people can be legimately insulted by the tone taken in some cases.

And the reason I'm talking about religion here? Because that's what the topic is about here. I don't find it any more acceptable in any of those other cases, but I'm not talking about them here. We're talking about the accomodationist position wrt religion. That's why I'm focusing on that here. That's it; that's all.

Deepak Shetty said...

let's say the respective legacies of Monica Seles and Steffi Graf.

How dare you compare champion grunter Seles with Steffi Graf :)?