Friday, December 08, 2006

Speaking vs. Acting

Today's post is inspired by a pair of readings; "The Paradox of Intolerance" at Atheist Revolution, and "Why I Can't Be an Atheist" at NewsByUs.

Criticizing Is Not Intolerance

I want to start this assessment by making a few comments about tolerance.

Somehow, a lot of people seem to have come to the bizarre conclusion that uttering the statement, "I think you're wrong," is an example of intolerance. Indeed, any type of criticism is now likely to draw the charge of intolerance or bigotry. Except, of course, when criticizing those who say, "I think you're wrong." These people can be legitimate criticized - by those who hold that all criticism is a form of intolerance.

This concept of intolerance is absolutely incoherent.

Or, please, allow me to put it another way – and to make my statement as plain as possible.

Criticism is NOT Intolerance

The concluding paragraph of vjack’s essay says:

When your beliefs become maladaptive, promoting irrationality and condoning conflict, hatred, exclusion, and a host of other adverse effects, I am not under any obligation to be tolerant of them. In fact, I am morally obligated to speak out against them.

Speaking out against anybody is not intolerance – unless and until that ‘speaking out’ turns into ‘acting out’ in the form of violence, or calling upon the government, to do violence.

Consider this:

We believe in freedom of the press. And by this we mean that no person shall be permitted to write or say anything critical of what another person writes or says.

That’s insane.

Freedom of the press means a freedom to be critical of others – as critical as one wants. Freedom of the press does not mean, “The government will protect you from criticism for what you say or write.” It means, “The government will protect you from violence for what you write – and that means refusing to be used as an instrument of violence by those who do not wish certain things written.”

Every essay that I post involves ‘speaking out’ against alternative points of view. Pick a post. Say, my most recent post advocating near-Earth space development over a trip to Mars. Does this imply that I am intolerant of Mars enthusiasts? Am I an anti-Mars bigot? Using the terms in this way is nonsense. It is perfectly acceptable to post an article, give a speech, or create some form of expression that says, “This view is more accurate than that view,” without being guilty of intolerance.

Using the view of intolerance that equates ‘speaking out’ to ‘intolerance’ – every scientific paper is an exercise in bigotry – because every scientific paper is an instance of ‘speaking out against’ adopting competing theories.

These examples clearly reduce the claim that equates “speaking out” to “intolerance” to an absurdity.

Phrases like, “You are wrong,” and “That will not work,” and “YOU IDIOT! YOU ARE GOING TO GET US KILLED!” are not unfailing markers of bigotry. They are perfectly legitimate expressions of opinion – even when they are used against claims like, “The earth is 6,000 years old,” or “We can eliminate the threat of hurricanes by restoring prayer in school,” and “God demands that we eliminate all stem cell research.”

So, where does this idea that criticizing is intolerance come from?

Hatemongering and demagoguery.

It came from demagogues thinking to themselves, "I do not want people to criticize my views, so I need a weapon that will promote hatred of those who would criticize me. To do that, I will brand all critics with the charge of 'intolerance'."

The freedom of religion does not mean that the government will prohibit people from criticizing other peoples’ beliefs. It means that the government will not allow that criticism to take the form of violence, and will not allow itself to be used as an instrument of violence in advancing religious beliefs.

The founding fathers expected that different religions would continue to battle each other for converts. Their job was not to eliminate conflict. Their job was to eliminate violence by saying to each church, “You may reason with, plead, beg, cajole, or hurl insults at any other religion – however we will not permit you to allow your conflict to step beyond verbal sparring only, into the realm of physical violence. If you resort to violence, you are out of here.”

I somebody comes up and says, “My God demands of me that I come out swinging. My God demands that I hurl more than insults at my enemies, but that I strike them down with the sword,” then we – then ALL civilized people – must say, “Then you cannot participate in your game. You are banned – your religion cannot be tolerated here.”

These are the rules.

So, let me repeat, “speaking out against” a view is not intolerance – and does not have to be defended as some type of ‘legitimate intolerance.’

Transcendant Evil

On the other side of the debate, the sentence in Robert E. Meyer’s article on why he cannot be an atheist that struck me as particularly interesting was,

The point is that the atheist has no transcendent foundation for his claims of what is moral or amoral in the first place. A materialistic universe offers no unmistakable moral absolutes of right or wrong.

The fact is, Mr. Meyer, that much of what you talk about as 'transcendent morality' is, in fact, 'transcendent evil' with a blind faith that cannot accept questions or criticism that keeps people committed to this evil year after year after bloody year.

One of the more shocking visions that atheists encounter, over and over again, are the words of people who claim that their ‘transcendent foundation’ for their claims of what is moral and immoral while they act in ways that spread death and misery across the planet. No image is more stark (and more responsible for the current Atheist backlash against religion) than the vision of a religious zealot flying an airplane full of civilians into a sky scraper claiming that only through religion is it possible for a person to have a true grasp of the difference between good and evil.

It is precisely because so many theists are making themselves a daily threat to the lives and liberty of others – it is because they are today inflicting and working so hard to do so much harm – that it has been felt necessary to say something in protest.

I am not talking here about the crusades and the inquisitions and the witch trials and the slavery of hundreds of years ago. If theists had learned from their mistakes, then the past could be left in the past as an interesting (but substantially irrelevant) after-diner conversation. It is the moral crimes of today being done in the name of God that causes concern.

I am talking about the priests who rape children and the Church that covers it up because it sought to avoid embarrassment. I am talking about the lies that regularly show up in Christian literature as they rewrite history, invent beliefs that they assign to their critics, and misrepresent scientific research and arguments. They ‘bear false witness’ against others with such reckless abandon that it sometimes seem that they have deleted the word ‘not’ from the commandment that says that this type of action is wrong.

But, more importantly, I am talking about the immoral – evil, harmful, and destructive legislation that those who believe in a ‘transcendental morality’ are fighting to impose on others – all in the name of God.

There is little moral difference between the person who thinks that his God permits – even demands – that he kill and maim 3,000 others by flying an airplane into a sky scraper in the name of God, and the person who stands in the way of 300 million people getting life-saving or quality-of-life improving cures to their disease. They both inflict great harm in the name of God, and those being harmed are quite justified in protesting the fact that they are being forced to serve as human sacrifices on somebody else’s altar.

Bans on early-term abortions (before the fetus has desires and, therefore, interests) and bans on same-sex marriage are two additional examples of people harming others in the name of God.

One of Meyer's more bizarre statements was, I can theoretically correct these wrongs through a proper application of the Christian worldview..

This assumes of course that the 'Christian worldview' was moral to start with. If, instead, it was a bunch of primative guesses at morality - right in a few areas, and wrong in most - then this 'proper application' would promote immorality, not morality.

When, on the other hand, a religion commands its followers to do evil to other, then a better understanding of that world view offers no improvement in their morality. Its effect is quite the opposite.

As for your question about how a person can justify moral claims without belief in God – it is done the same way that a person can justify a scientific theory without belief in God.

If you still have trouble imagining it, I would like to offer this: <insert shameless plug for book here.>

You will no doubt assert that it cannot be done - but it is an assertion only. It is a claim that stands on no better foundation than the claim that every thing there is to know about medicine is contained within the Bible, and no doctor who ever looks at an outside source is every going to be able to cure a disease.

You are wrong, Mr. Meyers. Your system will not work. And you are going to get a lot of good people harmed.


Alan Lund said...

Correct link to second article: Why I Can't Be an Atheist

Anonymous said...

a great article!

beepbeepitsme said...

Yes, exceptional article. I might steal it. (oops, did I say that out loud? )

Anonymous said...

Good points and great post (as usual) you anti-Mars bigot, you. Religion has long been set aside as something which is off limits to criticism in daily discourse. I think that Harris, Dawkins, and others are slowly starting to change - or at least question - this, but we have a long way to go.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Insofar as Harris and Dawkins say that it is permissible to raise objections to religious belief, I agree with them. It was my intention in this article to show that questioning or challenging another person's religious belief is not 'intolerance' - and should not be branded as such. Branding the questioning of religion 'intolerance' plays into the hands of those who assert that religious beliefs may never be questioned.

bpabbott said...


Great post! I noticed a typo

"No imagine is more stark (and more responsible for the current Atheist backlash against religion) than the vision of a religious zealot flying an airplane full of civilians into a sky scraper claiming that only through religion is it possible for a person to have a true grasp of the difference between good and evil."

I believe it should read

"No [image] is more stark (and more responsible for the current Atheist backlash against religion) than the vision of a religious zealot flying an airplane full of civilians into a sky scraper claiming that only through religion is it possible for a person to have a true grasp of the difference between good and evil."

Sorry for the nit-pic ;-)