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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, January 31, 2012

More rubbish about "shrill" atheists - this time in The Daily Mail

I am sick of this meme, but it won't go away. It seems that any forthright expression of atheism is going to be called "shrill", though the same will not apply to similarly forthright expressions of theism.

In the case of Richard Dawkins - really, he's a gentleman by the standards of debate on almost any other topic. At times he is passionate or mocking, but aren't we all when faced by manifest injustice, nastiness, or cruelty? In his book, The God Delusion, taken as a whole, he does indeed argue for the unpopular point of view that we should be emphasising the ways in which ordinary religion resembles delusion, rather than whatever ways they are distinguishable, but the general tone is very mild. At most, it is rather satirical (the paragraphs are laced with humour throughout - though there is also plenty of thoughtful discussion, with concessions and qualifications as needed).

In public appearances, Dawkins is usually gentle and tolerant - far more so than most people speaking on most subjects that they are passionate about. I've seen him go out of his way to be courteous to annoying and ignorant interlocutors.

As one of the commentators - "ben" - at the above link, says...
The religious zealots have adopted a very clever tactic, namely branding anyone who speaks out against religion as "strident", "shrill"or "angry" in attempt to plant the idea that atheists are persecuting them. The problem for them is that religion has had a free ride until recent years and any questioning of their superstitions is therefore seen as aggressive when in fact it is no more so than in any democratic debate. I for one do not intend to hold back because this is precisely what they want.
This is exactly right: there has been a largely successful attempt to hold atheists who actually argue publicly for atheism to a special standard. Anyone who does not meet it is thereupon demonised, or simply dismissed as "shrill", "strident", etc.

That's not to deny that there can be genuinely uncivil and over-the-top language from atheists. There can be, as from anyone else on any other topic. But it doesn't come from Richard Dawkins, and when we do see examples of it they are nothing compared to the sort of language that is used by people who are debating politics. With the Republican primaries going on in the US at the moment, that country is currently engaged in forthright political debate - and the level of incivility on all sides is at least as bad as I see from anyone debating the truth or falsity of religion.

Meanwhile, forthright Christians who want to argue publicly for the truth of their views manage to be at least as "shrill" as Dawkins. For example, I'm currently reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, which I don't think I've previously read in its entirety and have not opened for decades. As usual with Lewis, his style varies between blunt, emotive, self-righteous, and downright snide (I'll bracket off how naive the actual arguments are). His approach gets a free pass in our culture, but if an atheist wrote in exactly the same way he or she would be roundly condemned.


Jeffrey Shallit said...

I have always failed to understand why C. S. Lewis is regarded with such admiration. His arguments are shoddy and his fiction is abominable.

Anonymous said...

I made the mistake of reading Pitcher's piece, and at the risk of seeming 'strident' found it to be a complete waste of ten minutes. I'm not especially familiar with Pitcher; but if this piece is at all representative of his 'thinking' I'm grateful to be ignorant of him and will work assiduously to remain so.

Pete Moulton

Nick Andrew said...

Unlike some Christians, we are not calling for anybody's murder, nor threatening them with an eternity of torture.

Scote said...

I wonder if they will add "uppity" to the list of adjectives used to describe atheists? Because that is, IMO, what they mean.

Richard Dawkins said...

Nice piece, Russell, thank you. By the way, it is very encouraging to see how commenters are responding to Pitcher on the Daily Mail site.

Darrick Lim said...

I second the good Prof Dawkins. :D

BTW, last week my brother got me a ticket to the Global Atheist Convention in April as a birthday gift. Very much looking forward to seeing my intellectual heroes like Prof Dawkins in the flesh. Excitement!

Tony Lloyd said...

I think Scote has it with "uppity".

Maybe we should take a leaf out of the black/gay playbook and start deliberately "acting up".

"Atheists With Attitude"?
"Nation of Atheism"?

Drop the "brights" tag and call ourselves "shrills"?

Ron Murphy said...

Many of Dawkins critics obviously haven't read The God Delusion, in which he explicitly does not rule out some intelligent cause of the universe (Chapter 4: Why There Almost Certainly Is No God). And the Bus campaign he was associated with made it equally clear in saying there 'probably' is no God. The difference between Dawkins and Attenborough seems to be one of degree rather than of kind.

Religious arguments are as full of holes as their holy books (or is it holey books), and are just as selective at reading criticisms.

Ron Murphy said...

I like Tony's idea of 'Shrills'. Nice and snappy. But it might be lost on the religious who have the habit of taking things literally and will probably assume it an affirmation of their contention.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Russell. I was wondering if you could give an example from Mere Chrisitianity of C.S. Lewis being "blunt, emotive, self-righteous, and downright snide." I've never noticed it but that is most likely because I read Mere Chrisitianity when I was an evangelical Christian. And C.S. Lewis was a much more thoughtful apologist than the usual bunch (though still wrong, of course!)


James A. Castelli, Jr. said...

If I might offer a response to this trite ubiquity:

"By 'shrill' do you mean factually incorrect or bereft of supporting evidence? No, you don't? Then what, sir or madam, is your point? That you don't like the sound of my voice, or my conclusions and opinions make you feel uncomfortable, especially when you are required or expected to supply a spontaneous rebuttal?"

BarryTN said...

The response known as "Blake's Law" on Pharyngula, "In any discussion of atheism (skepticism, etc.), the probability that someone will compare a vocal atheist to religious fundamentalists increases to one.", applies to this sort of nonsense. "Shrill" translates to "oh help me jebus, he's winning".

Inajira said...

You're reading C.S. Lewis for the second time? My condolences.

Papalinton said...

Mindful of C S Lewis's delightful stories of mysticism and fantasy of the likes of the Narnia Chronicles, such as 1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) 2. Prince Caspian (1951) 3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) etc etc, the writer could not have wished for a better preparation and the opportunity presented to broaden his experience and insights into mythicism and the occultic, than through his personal and abiding relationship with the christian mythos.
Mere Christianity seems a somewhat dull story in comparison to his other works of fantasy.

Russell Blackford said...

Anon ... check out anything Lewis says about atheism, naturalism, or homosexuality (in Mere Christianity or elsewhere).

Richard Dawkins said...

We have a link at RD.net to this excellent piece by Russell, where I have posted an exposé of the Reverend George Pitcher's astonishing mendacity, especially about Christopher Hitchens: an unforgivable exploitation of the dead, along the lines of the notorious 'Lady Hope' legend about Darwin having a deathbed conversion.

Here is my post

Richard Dawkins

GregoryCool said...

Why do theist articles always refer to Richard Dawkins (and atheists in general) as 'shrill'. Shrill? There is nothing 'shrill' about Richard's voice at all. If you want to hear 'shrill', check out the preachers on GOD.TV

James A. Castelli, Jr. said...

This is pretty much what I meant. Here are the two insurmountable problems with the "shrill" label:

"Shrill," when it comes to how a person sounds, is a subjective description, and not any objective proof of anything.

Labeling someone "shrill" puts that person on the offensive, while dodging whatever question or point that they previously made (in, by your standards, "shrill" mode). A proclamation of "shrilliness" does not refute what was said. If a doctor tells you that you have cancer, but is "shrill" in doing so, does not magically mean you are actually cancer free.

Likewise, nobody likes a nag, but simply complaining that someone is "nagging" you does not mean that there is no truth in what is being nagged about (a sink full of dirty dishes, etc.).

We also seem to have been visited by Dawkins himself. I suppose it is authentic; at least his link goes to his website.

Russell Blackford said...

Thanks, Richard - I'll draw attention to the thread on your site and to your comment there.

Rajesh said...

I think most religious tend to look at criticism of their beliefs literally and their strident arguements as allegorical and not literal. This is same with their concept of Blasphemy.