Monday, 06 May 2013

Insult in the service of argument

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There's nothing inherently wrong with atheism, or theism for that matter. Too often though, proponents of one have nothing but insults and abuse for the other. Richard Dawkins is damaging the otherwise rational good name of atheists.

You really are a gratuitously unpleasant man

That was a tweet from English MP Tom Watson to Richard Dawkins. Dawkins had upset more than a few people by tweeting the following:

Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed [sic] flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.

Watson certainly isn't the first person to find Dawkins unpleasant. I also think it is safe to assume that Dawkins could not care less what Watson thinks about him - and I'm not suggesting he should.

I'm a Christian, and while I've not often been the recipient of any abuse or name-calling as a result, it is undeniable that Christians and others of faith are mocked and ridiculed. Whether it be on the playground as a kid, or on the internet as an adult, most of us are pretty used to it.

It's fine. I mock things I find to be ridiculous and I can hardly complain about getting a little of my own medicine. I'm secure about my beliefs and being made fun of is an unavoidable part of being human – and especially of being an Australian human.

Dawkins, however, is another matter. He doesn't just make fun; he has, on more occasions I can count, displayed a grim, almost maniacal determination to heap derision upon people of faith.

To be clear, I am certainly not suggesting that he should be stopped. I've written before about how pointless I consider the criminalizing of offensive speech. If Dawkins wants to act like an ass, then so be it. But his behaviour should be recognized and called out for the counter-productive abuse that it is.

It's not that I don't understand his position, in fact he and I are a little more alike than I would like to admit.

On one level, I find atheism incredibly attractive, and that's not just because it would free me from some decidedly inconvenient obligations (although that is a tempting prospect). It's because I know that if I was an atheist, I would be the most annoying kind: smug, arrogant, dismissive and supercilious. Stephen Colbert put it much better than I can: "Atheism: the religion devoted to the worship of one's own smug sense of superiority."

I don't doubt that it must feel great to refer to religions as "stone-age myths". I would relish the opportunity to scorn people who orient their moral compass with a book written thousands of years ago.

Why? Because being intellectually superior feels good. Many atheists are smug and condescending for the same reason many Christians are judgmental and bigoted - because it feels good to put someone else down, especially when they don't even accept the standard against which they are being measured.

Decades ago, Christianity was the "standard" in Western culture, and Australia was no exception. That's not to say that everyone was a devout Christian, or that everyone who dutifully showed up for church every Sunday morning actually believed a word of it - but we were, for the most part, a Christian nation.

Since then, there has been a liberation of sorts. There are few people now who would feel any social obligation to attend church or profess any religious belief. In fact, it's quite the opposite, many people (myself included) feel a pressure to be dismissive of the church and its claims. It's a none-too-subtle pressure to "grow up" and leave behind what many regard as antiquated, bigoted, homophobic and even racist beliefs.

In truth, cutting religion out of my life would be a profoundly easy decision to make. I'd cut my ties with the church, keep the friends who were happy with that decision, ditch the rest, and start writing pieces entitled "How I Grew Out of My Religion". I fancy I'd be in good company.

The reasons I don't do that are the subject of a different piece - but suffice to say that I don't accept the basis of atheism and I reject any assertion that there is no evidence for a deity.

But that doesn't mean that the accusations from atheists don't hit me where it hurts. No one likes the feeling that they are somehow inferior, blinded by an intellectual deficiency.

This is what Dawkins relies on to discredit theists. When he writes his books and his articles, when he gives his speeches and sits on panels, he is not simply discussing different points of view or considering ways to more clearly separate church and state. He is trying to humiliate Christians away from Christianity. The way he goes about it makes him sound like the atheist version of the Westboro Baptist Church, and he does much the same damage to his own cause.

If the atheist world-view has merit (and, again, that's another article) then Dawkins should be able to make its arguments without resorting to rage and name-calling.

Dawkins’ refusal to intelligently engage with Christianity (and religion generally) in favour of insults and slander betrays, to my mind, a lack of faith in his own arguments. He may well humiliate some people into giving up on defending their faith, in the same way that school-yard bullies humiliate other children into changing their behaviour - by making them ashamed and fearful, but he won’t make any real difference to the way religion and people of faith operate in society.

Until he learns to argue without insult, a bully is all he will be.

Andrew Tiedt

Andrew is a criminal defence lawyer from Sydney. 

Follow him on twitter @mrtiedt