Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum are getting another round of press coverage for their message that scientists need to play nice with people who believe in God. The ‘militant’ stand that some scientists take against religion, they argue, is counter-productive. Allegedly, this hostility towards religion turns people against science, which turns them against science funding, science education, and scientific knowledge.
I find it interesting to stand on the shoes of Mooney and (name) for an instant and look at the actions of those that I call the Town Hall Vandals. Take the mind set of somebody who thinks that it is important to 'play nice with others' in order to get what one wants, and apply it to those who have adopted the conscious tactic of disrupting meetings and rendering civil dialogue all but impossible.
There are a couple of important differences between the ‘militant’ atheists and the Town Hall Vandals.
The most conspicuous difference is that the 'militant' atheists made no attempt to shut down civil debate. It is not as if atheists decided to form mobs that would go to church on Sunday with the intent of disrupting the sermon by shouting down the preacher with questions, jeers, and taunts until the preacher lost all capacity to speak.
In fact, if atheists were to do that, they would rightfully have been subject to a great deal of condemnation – and some of that condemnation would have been found right here in this blog.
In fact, these 'militant' atheists behaved in ways that were significantly different from the behavior of the Town Hall Vandals. These 'militant' atheists participated in and sometimes hosted these civil debates. Many of the atheist leaders themselves stepped forward in front of cameras and microphones to engage, one on one, with religious leaders who disputed their claims. The audience remained quiet and respectful. They behaved, in other words, like decent civilized people should behave.
Yet, in the eyes of Mooney and Kirshenbaum that is not good enough. Scientists must learn not to criticize religion. For a scientist to even enter into a debate (or to write a book as his or her contribution to this debate) against religion is impermissible – something a good atheist scientist ought not to do.
It is also important to note that the term 'militant' people was invented by the religious communities because many religious people are very adept at bearing false witness against others for the sake of obtaining a political or social advantage. Which is just one of the many stumbling points for the hypothesis that there is some sort of mystical association between being religious and being moral.
This lie is popular in religious circles precisely because the term 'militant' generates an emotional response, and these religious propagandists are well aware of the fact that their unthinking followers pay more attention to the emotions that a set of words generate than to the truth of the claims generating those emotions.
These same tactics are being played out again in the claims that the proposed health care reform contains death panels that will arrange for the mass execution of the elderly and others unable to make a contribution to society. It is just another example of a cultural fondness for the practice of lying for political and social advantage.
If these atheists with their harsh words against religion may be called 'militant', then certainly a worse title is deserved for those who actually go so far as to disrupt town hall meetings.
Instead, I adopted the term 'vandal' out of an interest in being accurate – because the practice of lying for political and social advantage never appealed to me. A vandal is somebody who acts so as to destroy something of value without going so far as to kill and maim people. I hold that the term 'Town Hall Vandal' is accurate because these people set out to damage the democratic process by vandalizing town hall meetings, destroying something of value without maiming or killing people.
However, some Town Hall Vandals have clearly put forward that they are willing to start killing and maiming. They have shown up with guns at town hall meetings and made comments that can only be understood as death threats. They have at least threatened behavior that can honestly and accurately be described as militant (since it aims to use physical violence against others). Still, I have not seen a headline or even read an article that has used the phrase 'militant town-hall protesters'.
In fact, we will not see the term 'militant' applied until we see these Town Hall Vandals actually using violence against others - as we should not. It is a far more honest approach than what we see from those who use the term 'militant' atheist.
I will admit that many of the 'militant' atheists have used harsh words in their claims against religion. Yet harsh words themselves are not disruptive, and can even be true.
As a moral realist, I hold that moral claims have a truth value, and can be proved true or false like any other claim. When I call somebody a hate-mongering bigot, I can then go on and define my terms. My definition of hate-mongering bigot includes an element whereby people in general have reasons for action that exist to inhibit the desires found in hate-mongering bigots. I then go on to demonstrate that the subject of my text exhibits those characteristics. This gives me the conclusion that the claim that somebody is a hate-mongering bigot is not only true but the truth explains why there are reasons for action that exist for condemning those individuals.
I have a specific meaning in mind for the Town Hall Vandal, and can go through the same steps.
We can engage in civil debate over whether the application of these harsh terms is accurate. And, indeed, these debates have taken place between 'militant' atheists and theists.
The use of harsh language itself is not justification for criticism.
In fact, the position that those who speak critically of others deserve criticism is an absurd self-contradiction (as if there is any other kind).
Consequently, the case against the 'militant' atheists has to be stronger than the claim that they engage in the criticism of others. It has to rest on demonstrating that the criticism is not accurate or deserved. (And, often, atheists make flawed criticisms. This happens, for example, in instances where an atheist argues from premises that are true of this religion or that religion to conclusions that speak about ‘religion’ in general – an invalid inference that I associate with hate-mongering bigotry.)
So, we have, on the one hand, the behavior of the 'militant' atheists whose crime is that of writing books and publicly engaging in civil debate with theists on the matter of the existence of God and the implications of theism on the well-being of people in society. On the other hand, we have the Town Hall Vandals, who seek to disrupt public debate and bullying others with their opinions.
To this, we have the added irony that the Town Hall Vandals are largely made up of people with strong religious convictions, who hold that we can expect more moral behavior and stronger civic virtue on the part of those who believe in God than we can ever hope to see from atheists. In other words, what we get is yet another example of people who think that their belief in God implies that they are immune from moral behavior that is far worse than that which they condemn in those who do not belong to their religious tribe.
When we put the 'militant' atheist up against the Town Hall Vandal, we get an excellent example of bigotry and hypocrisy in others. We see a group of people actually committing the moral crimes they falsely accuse others of committing. And yet those falsely accused are being told that they are to 'play nice' with those who display such bigotry and hypocrisy.