Friday, June 01, 2012

Mistakes, Lies, and Prejudices

Many atheists, when responding to criticism against atheism, fail to accurately distinguish between mistakes, lies, and prejudices.

Each type of criticism warrants a different type of response. Consequently, the inability to correctly identify a criticism leads to an inability to select the appropriate response.

The types of criticisms that I am talking about were exemplified in two recent posts.

One is the claim that atheists are primarily concerned with spreading non-belief as one spreads religion. We are accused of being much like fundamentalist religious sects on missionary work to convert the masses.

The other is the claim that atheists are whining crybabies overly concerned with trivial (and often imaginary) abuses directed against atheists while other groups endure far worse.

Perhaps the responder is giving these critics of atheism the benefit of the moral doubt. Thus, they treat the claims as innocent mistakes.

The proper way to respond to an innocent mistake is to politely provide the evidence and reasoning that identify the mistaken proposition as false.

One would then point to the work of atheists and show that atheists are not so much concerned with belief in a god. If there was evidence supporting the existence of a deity with great moral wisdom, then belief in such an entity would be perfectly legitimate. For an atheist, the idea of being a missionary in the cause of unbelief is as absurd as being a missionary in the cause of heleocentrism. The atheist has no beliefs held in spite of evidence (on the basis of faith). The atheist's beliefs, at least ideally, go where the evidence takes him.

Similarly, the major motivation behind the atheist criticisms of religion has not been with minor abuses atheists have been forced to endure. It has been with the major costs that girls and young women, homosexuals, apostates, cartoonists, and civilian targets of terrorist attacks have had to endure. As a civil-rights movement, "new atheism" has been one of the more altruistic - where it's primary concerns have actually been with the extreme abuses that others suffer as a result of religious beliefs.

However, the tactic of politely pointing out the facts and the reasoning for rejecting such a claim seem impotent. The evidence is right there for people to see. Yet, people continue to make these claims about atheists.

The next hypothesis, consistent with the fact that the evidence against these derogatory generalizations is plain to see, is that the people making these claims know that the claims are false, but make them anyway.

In other words, they are liars.

The people they are lying to are those who trust the speaker or writer as a religious leader, and who do not look at the evidence and judge the case for themselves. The religious leader tells these people, "Trust me. These new atheists are fundamentalists only converting people to their type of religion and in whining about trivial and often imaginary slights against them. In fact, what they really want is to take away your freedom of religion!"

The proper response to a lie is not to point out to the liar the evidence that their claim is false - the liar already knows that it is false. Liars are to be subject to public ridicule and shaming. The correct response is to use the fact that people have many and strong reasons to condemn - and in some cases even to punish - those who engage in deceptive manipulation. Consequently, if this accusation is accurate, people generally have many and strong reason to condemn - and even to punish - these critics of atheism as liars. Failure to do so puts people at risk of suffering harms not only from these but from other deceptive manipulators.

An important subcategory of the lie is the public-relations tactic. The accusation of lying requires that it not only be the case that the liar knows that her claims are false. It also requires identifying a motive for making false claims. Lies must have a purpose.

The purpose in this case is often to preserve and promote the liar's political and social status. Another potential purpose is that it allows the liar to get away with behavior harmful to others. They get to act on sentiments that derive satisfaction from behavior harmful to others while avoiding the social costs that would otherwise and should spring from that harmful behavior. We can put on the list of actions feeding these types of sentiments abuses to women, children, homosexuals, apostates, non-believers (defined either as those who do not believe in any god or, more commonly, as those who do not believe in the correct god - either one of them being condemned precisely because they do not kiss the feet of the religious leader claiming to represent the one true god).

However, this accusation of lying often does not stick very well. Proof that the speaker is claiming something he believes to be false is hard to come by. More importantly, the speaker often seems to sincerely believe what she is saying - even though the evidence is clearly and obviously against it.

However, the fact that, as a lie, these derogatory claims made against atheists serve a purpose suggests a third possibility. It may be the case that these false claims are not lies. Nor are they simple mistakes. Instead, they fit in the category of prejudices.

A prejudice is a belief one accepts in the absence of evidence - and often in the face of evidence to the contrary - because the person who embraces it finds it emotionally satisfying. That satisfaction might come directly from the belief itself out of personal sense of hatred or disgust toward the target group. It might come indirectly, as a result of effects that the prejudice helps to bring about, such as maintaining a privileged social and political standing, acquiring wealth, or obtaining a ticket into heaven.

When dealing with a prejudice, unlike a mistake, one does not expect reason or evidence to do any good. The agent has not adopted the belief based on evidence, and will not abandon it based on evidence.

However, reason and evidence can be provided to neutral third parties as proof that the speaker really is a bigot. "Here is a person who seems to sincerely hold these derogatory false beliefs about others. They are derogatory, they are insincerely held, and - by means of this blatantly obvious evidence and reasoning - they are clearly false. Thus, the speaker in this case is expressing a prejudice." In fact, it can be taken as further proof that the speaker is a bigot that the speaker has not responded to the presentation of evidence the way one would if one had made an innocent mistake.

When dealing with a prejudice, unlike a lie, one does not accuse the agent of believing that the derogatory claims are false. One accepts that the agent actually believes them - in spite of clear evidence to the contrary.

When dealing with a prejudice, as when dealing with a lie, one targets the speaker with social condemnation. There is no place in civilized society for bigots - agents who allow their personal desires to motivate them to embrace derogatory beliefs about others. Ultimately, these accusations may make the bigot uncomfortable with her prejudices, which then may inspire the bigot to look at them more objectively.

When reading or listening to somebody making derogatory claims about atheists, the most accurate response is often not to say, "You are wrong, and here is why you are wrong," or "You are a liar." The most accurate response is to say, "You seem to be suffering from a prejudice against atheists. Here's the evidence that shows that your claims are false. However, I do not expect this evidence to affect your beliefs one way or the other. Bigots do not respond to evidence. I do, however, hope it will show listeners or readers who do not share your prejudice that those types of claims are, in fact, bigoted."

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