About Me

My photo
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).

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Another kerfuffle among atheists - the Stefanelli and Hale dust-up

These kerfuffles among atheists don't prove much - only that atheists have human limitations, like everyone else, and that atheist organisations are all-too-human constructions. Since they don't claim otherwise (they don't, for example, claim to be divinely founded or guided), in a sense there's nothing to see here. Still, every such incident provides a teachable moment if we're willing to see it that way.

Here's a fairly recent post by Al Stefanelli, Georgia State Director for American Atheists, in which he calls for "taking the gloves off" against Christian fundamentalism and radical Islam. It has attracted well over 100 comments and a great deal of additional controversy on the internet.

An initial difficulty with the post is that it calls for "intolerance" of certain beliefs. That, however, goes against the grain of liberalism ... which values toleration and social pluralism.

Philosophical atheists are usually notable for endorsing and advocating liberal tolerance: this does not mean that we welcome or esteem every viewpoint, but merely that we do not attempt to crush rival viewpoints by the use of state power. Prisons, guns, and the like - swords, the rack, and flaming torches in earlier times - are not, according to liberal tolerance, to be employed as weapons to crush disfavoured ideas or ways of life. Not, at least, without some compelling reason for state interference, such as a pressing threat to someone's health or safety.

Doesn't Stefanelli actually agree with this? Perhaps he does, but he says as follows:
The growing ranks of fundamental Christians and radical Muslims should be of concern to everyone who is not part of these two groups. Everyone. Again, bigotry, discrimination, hatred, coercion, terrorism, slavery, misogyny and everything else that is part and parcel of fundamental Christianity and radical Islam should not be tolerated and anyone who agrees with this needs to adopt extremist points of view that includes the intolerance of their very existence. The only reason these groups exist is because they are allowed to, and we, as a society, are allowing them to.
This has evidently caused some confusion. The first quoted sentence talks about "fundamental [Stefanelli really means "fundamentalist"] Christians" and "radical Muslims", which sounds as if he is talking about individuals who belong to those categories, but then he ends the sentence by speaking of them as "two groups". In the next full sentence (after the sentence fragment "Everyone"), he talks about "bigotry, discrimination, hatred, coercion, slavery, misogyny" then "everything else that is part and parcel of fundamental Christianity and radical Islam"; he then says that anyone who agrees with this (i.e. that certain things should not be tolerated) "needs to adopt extremist points of view that includes the intolerance of their very existence". But what does the word "their" refer to?

Does it refer back to "fundamental Christians and radical Muslims" (as individuals)? Does it mean these as two groups, i.e. fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam? That's plausible, since the final sentence of the quote speaks of groups existing only because we "as a society" allow them to ... as if these groups should not be allowed to exist.

Or does the pesky pronoun "their" refer to "bigotry, discrimination, hatred, coercion, terrorism, slavery, misogyny" (and perhaps also to "everything else that is part and parcel of fundamental Christianity and radical Islam")? Or what?

If it refers merely to intolerance of the existence of bigotry, discrimination, hatred, coercion, terrorism, slavery, and misogyny, then why is this intolerance described as an "extremist" viewpoint? Surely there is nothing especially extremist about not tolerating those things (though it may be a good question whether all "hatred" and "discrimination" can/should actually be dealt with by the law).

If the intolerance is supposed to extend to the unnamed other things that are "part and parcel of fundamental Christianity and radical Islam" the situation is less clear - for what are these things? Surely there are some things that are part and parcel of fundamentalist Christianity, to use that example, but should be tolerated in every sense. Consider private prayer - this is surely "part and parcel" of fundamentalist Christianity, as it is of various other belief systems, but it's something that should be tolerated in every sense. I imagine there are also many things that are part and parcel of radical Islam but should be tolerated (belief in the existence of Allah, for example).

Overall, the post is emotive and confusing; and I don't think anyone who struggles to make sense of it is thereby suffering from a lack of reading comprehension, as Stefanelli has since suggested. I wonder, in fact, why it had to be written in such a way that it purportedly calls for "intolerance" (whatever exactly that is, in this context) and "extremist points of view". Why adopt this sort of language, which either identifies you as an extremist, a fanatic, or (if you are not one ... and I don't think Stefanelli is) merely causes confusion?

It gets worse: near the end, after talking about various organisations and their members, and why atheists and others rightly criticise them, Stefanelli says: "But the underbelly of fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam does not operate in the legal system. They don’t respond to lawsuits, letters, amicus briefs or other grass-roots campaigns and they must, must, must be eradicated."

Here, the word, "they" as in "They don't respond to lawsuits..." apparently refers back to the expression "the underbelly of fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam" - but why say "they", rather than "it", if that is intended? In any event, what is this "underbelly" that he speaks of? Does the expression refer to certain groups, organisations, individuals, ideas, or what? Whatever it is, we are told that "they" do not respond to lawsuits, etc. That wording implies that we are talking about groups or organisations (or, less likely individuals) that must be "eradicated". After all, an idea is not the sort of thing that is even a candidate for responding to a lawsuit.

And what form is the process of eradication supposed to take? It can't take the form of sending letters or initiating lawsuits, which are the very actions that we are told are ineffective. Some other action is evidently being urged, in order to eradicate whatever is supposed to constitute the "underbelly" ... but it's not clear just what action.

In the end, when you boil it down, Stefanelli mainly seems to be making a point with which I (essentially) agree: the law should apply the same secular standards to actions done for a religious reason as to the same actions done for some other reason. E.g., if we have a law in place forbidding murder, that law should apply just as much to ritual human sacrifices as to bumping off a rival lover or a pesky business competitor.

However, when Stefanelli talks of some-or-other "they" which doesn't respond to lawsuits, letters, etc., and so must be eradicated, this starts to sound like he is talking about eradicating organisations or groups or movements (again, I do think it's stretching things to imagine that he's talking about eradicating people ... but still, any use of words such as "eradicate" and its cognates is dangerous).

Miranda Celeste Hale has thought about all this ... and written a blog post that has also received over 100 comments, including at least one angry one from Stefanelli.

I don't agree with every point in her post, but I do agree with her that Stefanelli's post suffers the fault of using inflammatory language while being quite fuzzy as to what is intended by it. What's more, there was no need to employ such inflammatory language ("intolerance", "extremist"), since the strength of the post is a good, solid point - a point about the need to subject religious adherents and organisations to the same laws, and the same kinds of criticism, as everything else. This point could have been made without talk of intolerance or the need for "extremist points of view", or anything else of the kind.

This point could also have been made without seemingly wild over-generalisations about how fundamentalist Christians and radical Islamists "want us to die" - no doubt, some do. But I happen to know a lot about fundamentalist Christianity, in particular, and I've met, or even been on friendly terms with, many people who would qualify under most definitions of fundamentalist Christianity (e.g they believe that the Bible is the inerrant, unchanging word of God). It is simply not true to say of them, in a blanket way, "They want us to die."

Many of these people actually want us to live as long as needed to accept Jesus Christ as our saviours. The minds of many or most fundamentalist Christians are simply not oriented to violence, but to spreading the Gospel and "saving" souls.

Nor should we talk as if people who believe in fundamentalist Christian doctrines - or radical Islamic ones if it comes to that - are more likely to be sociopaths or psychopaths than anyone else. In the absence of robust research findings to the contrary, there is no reason to think that these groups contain a significantly higher percentage (or, indeed, a higher perecentage at all) of sociopaths and psychopaths than any other religious group or than non-believers. No such research is mentioned.

These religious groups may well harbour far greater percentages of fanatics than the rest of the population, but that is another matter entirely.

It's true that fundamentalist Christians tend to want their views to prevail at the social and political levels, so Stefanelli is correct to say, "They do not want to sit down with us in diplomatic efforts to iron out our differences and come to an agreement on developing an integrated society." That, however, is not the same as wanting us to die.

To try to sum this up, Stefanelli's article is often confusingly written; it makes Stefanelli himself look more extreme than he probably is (when you try to boil down what he's actually asking for); and at best it engages in considerable hyperbole.

What about Hale? Perhaps her response also includes some hyperbole, but it certainly does not exhibit a failure of reading comprehension, as Stefanelli says on the comment thread. Indeed, an obvious way to read Stefanelli's post is that he thinks society as a whole should not allow certain groups to exist.

Moreover, it's always wise not to blame your readers too quickly, even if they do seem to misunderstand you. Sometimes readers may misunderstand because difficult concepts are involved, and because the readers are not familiar with them or with their historical context. This may not be the fault of the writer, and it can be galling when readers who have failed to understand a line of argument for these reasons reply in a dismissive or nasty way. That's happened to me plenty of times, and I can understand if that's what Stefanelli thinks is going on here.

But I don't see it like that in this case. The concepts in play are not actually that difficult, and the person who has struggled to achieve the meaning Stefanelli apparently intends is a high-profile and highly-educated atheist blogger who has produced much in the way of intelligent analysis in the past, especially of Catholic responses to sexual misconduct issues. In any event, it's easy to see how the hyperbole and very strong language used by Stefanelli can give the impression that he is arguing for something drastic (much more drastic than he probably intends) even if read with some charity.

I'm sure there are lessons in all this, but different readers will take different things from it. One lesson might be that we should always explain ourselves very carefully when putting views that might be interpreted as extremist. Labelling your own views, or views that you commend, as "extremist" is asking for trouble.

That said, some opponents will quote mine, over-simplify, and distort, no matter how carefully we explain ourselves. There is no guaranteed defence against this happening when our words get into the hands of malicious or intellectually dishonest opponents, but that's not a reason to write in a way that will even confuse and alienate allies and others who are reading in good faith.

There may be other lessons as well, but I've said enough for now. I wish these kerfuffles could be avoided, but they will go on happening, and we need to take them in our stride. When they do, it's worth examining some of them to see if we can learn anything ... especially anything that could minimise poor communication in the future.


Miranda Celeste Hale said...

Thanks for this post, Russell. It's a very astute & thoughtful analysis of the whole situation.

Jon Jermey said...

I'm GLAD these kerfuffles are happening, because they indicate that atheism as an organised movement is becoming strong and confident enough to permit internal debates. It's only the most fearful and feeble of groups which attempt to pretend there is no disagreement amongst their members. The fact that atheism has moved beyond that is a positive sign.