skeptical language

As a skeptic, I see a lot of discussions about what constitutes good atheism or bad atheism. I also see discussions about where or how it’s considered rude to express your disbelief. Perhaps most relevantly, I see discussions about where or how it becomes rude to express your disbelief in someone else’s belief.

I feel like the bulk of atheists I personally know tend to take a pretty hands-off approach to discussing religious beliefs, focusing more on the social side of religions. That’s understandable for many reasons, and I think the lousy actions we associate with individuals such as Famous Atheists Who Are Kinda Dicks probably have contributed to an atmosphere where most of us endeavor not to be that dick.

On the other hand, where do we draw the line? And where does that line become about secular respectability politics?

I’m remembering this conversation I saw a few years ago.

I used to belong to a private IRC chatroom where about ~20 people would come in and out regularly. There mostly wasn’t a set topic or theme. A couple of people in the chat were Unitarian Universalists. There were also some progressive Christians. And, of course, there were atheists, some of whom were outspoken skeptics and some of whom were more passive in their secularism.

One day, one UU and an atheist, one who I deemed to be more in the passive camp, had a pretty awful argument.

It started like this.

They were discussing some belief — I honestly can’t even remember what — but am 99% sure it involved either a belief in something supernatural, or a practice related to the aforesaid.

The atheist remarked, “Dude, that’s cracked. :)”

Cracked, in this case, like cracked.com — off-beat. Now, this particular lady sometimes caught flack because her smileys were perceived to be passive-aggressive on occasion, though she would routinely note that she intended them to soften her comments, to convey that there was no malice in her observations. I am still friends with her. If she comments on my posts about secularism at all, it’s usually to say she is apathetic towards secularism as a cause. So, she’s definitely not a Dick sort of atheist, and this observation about a “cracked” belief or practice was completely offhanded.

The UU became noticeably tense. She responded, “I would like to take this opportunity to remind you that I believe in [topic at hand],” to which the atheist responded, well, I know you are [in this or that church] that does believe in that, but I still find this belief really unlikely.

At this point, the UU wrote: I cannot conceive of someone who would be so unthinkably rude as to say something like that in front of someone who belongs to this group, to insult someone’s beliefs right in front of them.

She then demanded an apology.

She said, if you value my friendship, then apologize, now. I don’t want to hear anything else from you besides an apology.

I remember watching this whole exchange and finding it extremely surreal.

There’s a lot you could talk about. A lot you could debate.

The first aspect of the discussion which grabbed my attention was the ipso facto perspective that saying something negative about someone else’s [religious] belief is inherently extremely rude.

The offended party didn’t just indicate she was upset about her own belief being dismissed. She implied it would be extremely offensive to be dismissive towards anyone’s religious belief.

And yet I found myself thinking: if you don’t believe in the supernatural, how exactly can you not be dismissive towards it? Like, even if we atheists don’t sit around in circles talking about the more fantastic claims that have been made in the name of different world religions, presumably people who are atheists by definition don’t find such claims to be very likely.

Should we simply mask our opinions about the world as it is, or about history, so as not to offend believers? And to what extent do believers owe atheists anything in return? Because it’s not like I think the offended party owed it to the atheist to continue to be friends with her. No one owes anyone else any sort of allegiance.

So if you don’t believe in someone else’s [religious] belief, where, or how, does it become rude to say so?

And if you find the [religious] belief fantastically improbable, where, or how, does it become rude to imply that it’s an out there belief?

This is a messy terrain for me, because I feel certain that pretty much everyone picks and chooses their own line. On the other side of that line is Shit They Consider Bizarre. I’ve known people who made a big deal about embracing any and all religious beliefs who then turned around and talked about how absurd Scientology or an impending rapture was. I think literally no one on Earth is 100% consistent in thinking all claims are exactly as likely as all other claims. And, frankly, if someone did think that, I can’t see why that would give cause to take their perspective particularly seriously.

Yet, you can’t really demand people not to be offended if you find their beliefs odd, even if you say it really nicely, or even if it’s not specifically directed at them, but in a more general setting (as this chat was).

Sure, some people are easy-going and just don’t give any fucks. But plenty more do give plenty of fucks. When I’ve talked in any way about the unlikelihood of supernatural claims, I’ve gotten pushback that’s taken the form of either “this is a foregone conclusion; why are you talking about it?” or “how dare you force other people to share your beliefs!” or some such variation on those themes. If it’s a foregone conclusion, as even so many other atheists tend to think, why does stating skepticism with any force tend to almost immediately draw claims that you’re rocking the boat?

I want to be sensitive to people’s humanity and people’s feelings and, yes, people’s beliefs.

But I also want to be an iconoclast:
I want to destroy the Sacred. All Sacred. By that, I mean I want to destroy that Sacred Supernatural Which Posits Itself as Above Critique. I want to tear down arbitrary symbols which position themselves as full of meaning. I want to drain the blood of the signs and signifiers of the magical and the otherworldly and the scientifically unlikely that imposes itself upon reality. Not all at once. Incrementally. Little by little.

Not with a bang, but with a whisper.

Leave a Reply