No gods, but perhaps a holy sacrament! (Tom Yum Ghai)
“I don’t believe in atheists.” That’s a phrase I’ve been seeing a lot lately. It passes for clever in apologetics blogs and it helps many a drive-by tweeter to troll the atheist hashtags. I somehow doubt the majority of these people are making references to the Chris Hedges book from 2008, but who knows how the meme rolls? The bottom line is that lots of folks have found it fun a fun phrase to say.
I wish I could give them all a cookie.
In one respect, at least, the argument does seem fitting. For so long the topic of ‘atheism’ has had a larger presence in Sunday school sermons than it has in the words of actual non-believers. To meet folks who actually claim the title must seem rather surreal to many believers, a bit like having the villains from a story come to life and begin talking back. How much this has to do with the emergence of the so-called new atheism, and how much of this may have been a problem even for the nay-sayers of previous generations, I don’t know, but I do think a lot of Christians must be rather surprised to find other voices have begun to shape a topic over which they expect full control. It really must seem like the height of rudeness for the characters in ones’ own stories to begin asserting ownership of their own narrative. Telling us that atheists aren’t real is a bit like banishing us back to the story lines of Christianity. We are supposed to be vanquished at the end of the sermon; we aren’t supposed to talk back.
…which is what this phrase is really all about.
If pressed on the matter, and sometimes without needing to be pressed at all, those repeating this almost-edgy mantra can usually produce an argument on the matter. Essentially the idea is that atheists are misrepresenting our own selves. Often the argument is that deep down we really know that there is a God. Sometimes, the argument is that we are just rebelling against a god we actually know to exist, or that we simply want to enjoy a life of sin regardless of this god that we really know about. …deep down in our hearts.
I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen this claim that atheists really know there is a god linked to the whole atheists-are-really-just-agnostics-who-need-a-dictionary theme, but that wouldn’t surprise me. Ultimately, both strategies effectively deny the reality of atheism, and of course variations of both arguments are legion.
There is of course little reason to respond to these arguments, but hang on because I’ve got a couple reasons for that at least.
…the not responding part.
I think it pays to recognize interpersonal aggression when you see it, and to separate that as much as possible from efforts at thoughtful discussion. Disbelief in atheism is a paradigm case of poisoning the well, and people don’t do it because they want to talk to you about what you believe, what they believe, or what people might believe in Eastern Mongolia. They are doing it because they want to establish control over you at the outset of the conversation. Why they want that is another question, but make no mistake the issue is control, not some theoretical point they might want to make about anything.
You can have a real conversation about whether or not God exists. You can have a real conversation about what She might be like. You can have a real conversation about what people might or might not know about Her. None of these conversations should be confused with questions about what is or isn’t an accurate representation of your beliefs on that topic.
How do we know what people believe? In most cases, the answer is simply because it is what they have told us what they believe. Support for the truth or falsehood of an assertion about something in this world would ideally take the form of objective evidence, but claims about what one does or doesn’t believe are normally declared by fiat, so to speak, and in most cases, the conversation proceeds from there.
I’m not suggesting there are never any grounds on which to doubt people’s self-representation, but I am suggesting that it’s more than a little unusual to do so. The basis for such doubts ought normally to come from the actions and statements of the party accused of misrepresenting themselves. When (as is almost always the case with dismissal of atheism) the grounds for doubt are little other than theoretical assumptions as to what other people MUST really believe despite their own protestations that is a question good and begged.
It’s also the end of the conversation.
There is of course a secular variant of this argument. We could as easily maintain that believers don’t actually believe what they say that they believe and that all of them are really just pretending to believe in gods. We can go that route if we really want to. But what would be the point of talking about it?
Or even thinking about it, really?
It’s a damned easy world in which those who don’t agree with you become liars or deluded wrecks right from the first nuh-uh, and taking seriously the possibility of real disagreement over an issue is part of taking the issue (whatever it may be) seriously to begin with.
The first sin was not the eating of an apple (or even a pomegranate). No, it began when mankind (or at least Eve) gave an ear to the Serpent, or so the story goes, at least according to my old Bible-as-Literature prof. I try to keep that in mind whenever I find myself cast in the role of that Serpent, or at least one of his servants.
I am speaking of course of those moments when someone tells me that I worship Satan, or that I serve him. It is common enough to see this charge leveled at atheists, at least on the net. I doubt its occurrence is limited to that context.
I must say that it took me some time to wrap my mind around the concept. You might think it would be a little difficult to worship an entity in which you don’t believe. I certainly did. But it turns out to be remarkably easy to serve him, he does all the work for you, even without letting you know about it. I have been reassured many times that my actions serve the dark lord, regardless of my own conscious intent. I have also been told that deep down I know this to be the case, whether I will admit it or not. It’s always fascinating to find out what I know and what I believe, especially when it has the makings of a good horror story.
Just think of it; you have two competing stories!
– On the one hand, I would like to think of my story as one of a sincere guy tapping away at the keyboard in the hopes that he can present a reasonable case for a position that he thinks is correct. In the end maybe I can teach something to someone, or perhaps learn something from a well-reasoned response. We could call this the intellectual exchange model of the disc… hey you! Wake up, dammit!
– Okay, on the other hand, you have a minion of Lucifer operating under the auspices of the Dark Lord himself to invest ordinary binary code with the force of evil and send it out to work its insidious wonders on unsuspecting believers. The argument itself is hardly important; it serves as a vehicle for some sort of insidious power.
Honestly, it doesn’t take much effort to figure out which is the more interesting story. (Sigh!) And if you too count yourself as a vocal non-believer, this whole thing probably rings a bell or three in your own experience.
In truth, there is little one could do to answer such a claim, that one serves Satan, because of course every answer you give would be subject to the same suspicion. This is why I am inclined to think of the story of Adam and Eve here. …and of the Serpent. The trouble really does begin for that narrative in the decision to listen to that serpent as it is an act of disloyalty to God. To speak with His enemy at all is itself unthinkable! Subsequent troubles could hardly be surprising; they are the narrative consequence of willfully opening oneself to an evil message. If that’s the way some believers see the input of atheists, then that doesn’t bode well for anything along the lines of, um, constructive dialogue.
I do think this is the model behind the charge that atheists serve Satan. It not merely some bit of empirical confusion about what we do and don’t believe, so much as it is a warning about the nature of any message we happen to carry. That is precisely the point of casting atheists in the role of Satan’s servants; it is in effect to construe our every word and deed as an evil which one ought not to give reasonable consideration. It isn’t really even the metaphysics of this proposition that matters; it’s the pragmatics. Simply put, the moral of the story is don’t listen to anyone who casts any sort of doubt on God.
I have tried myself and seen others attempt a range of different responses to this kind of charge, but lately I am inclined to accept it.
I’ll be your huckleberry.
I don’t mean to say that I actually intend harm to others, but I am simply done trying to convince certain parties that I (or other atheists) can be good without God. If these are the terms, then I sometimes want to say ‘so be it’. I will not give those who make such accusations the satisfaction of trying to plead innocence from the bottom of a poisoned well.
The whole accusation smacks of manipulation of course, but it is not merely manipulation, because some people actually do seem to believe it, or at least they say that they do. In its own right, this sort of charge is actually a fascinating example of the limitations of reasoning.
Another of my old professors, Maurice Finnochiaro, used to talk about the study of argumentation as an historical phenomenon. He was interested in meta-argumentation, arguments about arguments. And in its own way this little gift of frustration for an unbeliever is in fact an argument about an argument. It is a clear and concise statement about the prospects for constructive discussion, albeit a rather pessimistic one.
The viewpoint in question is very much informed by the outlook of Spiritual Warfare. It reflects a range of suppositions about the spiritual powers at play in the world. It is the same sort of thinking that finds Satanic messages in so many rock&roll lyrics, Devil Worshipers in Day-care centers everywhere, and demons in Hentai images. It is the same thinking that leads to talk of protecting baby-Christians (those new in the faith) from exposure to other views, and it is the same sort of thinking that plays havoc with the lives of homosexuals in Uganda and other places where some Charismatic Christians go to press for policies they could never manage in the west. But seriously, my list of horribles aside, the point is that there is a body of religious tenets behind the sort of charge that atheists serve Satan. If we are inconvenienced by the whole thing, chances are we should count our blessings.
…though we won’t actually want to call them ‘blessings’ of course.
But the charge of Satanic worship, absurd though it may be to the mind of an unbeliever is a good reminder of the reflexive nature of reasoning. It would be a swell world for rationalists if we could divide all the ideas of humanity up into those about which we reason and then a separate list of ideas about how to reason about the items on the first list. It would be swell if that second set rested safely outside the scope of disagreement, a sort of neutral arbiter in our disputes. But it just doesn’t work like that. And in this as in any other debate, one must remember that among our disagreements we often also differ on the significance of the disagreements themselves. In other words, part of the argument is also always about the nature of argumentation itself.
Sometimes we are fortunate enough to discuss (or even debate) people with whom we share enough assumptions about the nature of reasoning to proceed with a constructive discussion, even in the face of vast disagreements over issues like belief in God. Folks may not flip their whole belief orientation on the basis of a single conversation (or even thirty of them), but sometimes we shift a little, modify an assumption, or even simply come to appreciate the aesthetics of a well argued point from the other side. Such discussions can be rewarding and pleasant exchanges, …if that is, one starts with a range of assumptions that makes it possible.
Some people just don’t make those same assumptions. When someone says that atheists serve Satan, they are sending a very clear signal that they are not down for the discussion, at least on any terms which would give an unbeliever a chance. To do so would already be a betrayal of their faith, and a mistake exposing them to tremendous evil (evil carried by you and I, my unbelieving friends). It is also a signal that the clear significance of your words (to that person) lies not in the quality of your reasoning so much as an impersonal force over which you may not have conscious control. That force will be the focus of the accuser, not the cogency of any argument you make.
This may seem ironic, but among the topics generally falling under the purview of logic and/or critical thinking is a little gem called the “principle of charity.” Simply put, this entails an obligation to interpret any given argument in the strongest sense possible, consistent with its actual wording. In other words, when you come to one of those moments where you could think of more than one way to take what someone else is saying, pick the one that gives them the strongest case possible. You don’t have to rewrite an argument for someone, or pretend you don’t see obvious flaws, but when there are genuine questions about the intent of an author, opt for the interpretation that gives him a fighting chance.
Then give him a hug.
This isn’t really about being nice. One of the most important reasons for applying the principle of charity is that it helps to ensure your own analysis will not be wasted. If you take advantage of some ambiguity in the text of an argument and spin it into something utterly foolish, then your own evaluation of that argument becomes all that much more trivial. If you are in actual dialogue with someone, then it’s easy enough for the other guy to simply restate his argument, filling in the gaps so as to avoid whatever silliness you have read into his claims. By sticking with the strongest version of an argument, you an help to ensue that you really are evaluating a case worth considering.
And then it’s open season!
I’ve often had occasion to reconsider this approach to critical thinking, not the least of reasons being that there seem to exist a rather large number of occasions when folks don’t want to use it. And by ‘folks’ in this instance, I mean “me too!” Whether reading or listening to an argument, sometimes I just don’t feel all that charitable. More to the point, sometimes, I think there are substantial reasons to set the principle aside.
I first noticed this, sitting in an anthropology class, listening to a critical theorist shred some text I have long since forgotten. Simply put, the principle of charity was quite lacking in that analysis, as it was with many similar texts I had been reading in that program. This was no accident. Where my critical thinking teachers had been preparing me for open dialogue with people with whom I might disagree, the critical theorists I had begun to read were far more interested in exploring the role of a given text in promoting power relations within a larger social context. Where the one approach talked about what a text might mean, the other talked about what it did in fact mean, at least under the prevailing circumstances.
And it occurs to me that I did this sort of thing myself in my post on the California law for the protection of the Indian, …i.e. the Law that enslaved Indians in California even as that very state entered the union as a “Free state.” The text is not an argument, but it raises many of the questions I am talking about here. The text sets up a range of legal mechanisms which include indentured servitude as a possible alternative to incarceration. Bearing, in mind the principle of charity, one could ask if it is really fair to think of this law as a means of establishing slavery? You have to read between the lines, or you have to know some facts about the politics which produced it and guided its implementation. Once, you do know these things, the answer very quickly becomes ‘yes’.
And herein lies the crux of the problem. Application of the principle of charity means setting aside important questions about the actual impact of an argument in order to engage in dialogue with its proponents. This begs the question of whether or not you want such a dialogue in the first place (or whether or not it is even possible). And sometimes, the answer to that question is just ‘no’.
Case in point? Let’s look at this moment of Mitt Romney fame.
Now I know you think I’m going to attack him, and the truth is that I probably am, but not until after I am done defending him.
…I know; it confuses me too.
The common take on this topic is that Romney was echoing the sentiments of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), namely the principle that corporations possess many if not all of the same rights as people. The notion that corporations are fictional people is hardly new to the political landscape. My Constitutional History Teacher was quite clear about that matter back in 1992, long before the current outrage, but for various reasons which needn’t concern us here, Citizens United brought about a frightful new firestorm of controversy over the notion, and that was fresh in a lot of people’s minds when Romney made this speech. Add to this a general sense that the Republican party is responsible for the relevant composition of the Supreme Court and for backing its rationale, and you have a ready-made battle just waiting for someone to drop in with the perfect phrasing
But is that what Romney was actually trying to tell his audience? If you look at the video, he was in the midst of making a very different point at the time, namely the fact that someone will have to bear the cost of raising taxes. Urged to levy the tax on corporations, Romney adds quickly that corporations are people. So, the question is this; was he affirming the legal rights of corporations, as per Citizens United, or was Romney trying to suggest that any costs applied to corporations will be paid by people somewhere in the marketplace (investors, employees, or even customers)? Although the categorical language suggests the former, Romney’s subsequent comments suggest the latter. The video itself doesn’t really yield a clear answer, and it is entirely possible that both lines of thought came together in one big mutant two-headed reason with no clear notion of the relationship between its sources.
At some point you have to make a choice as to the meaning of his comment.
If it’s the former choice, then well, go get him Lizzy Warren! And I must admit to a certain soft-spot for this inquiry as to the kind of person that a modern corporation would be, if indeed it were a person. But if Romney really was trying to tell us that costs accrued to corporations are ultimately borne out by people, then he is right.
Broken clocks, and all that!
Hell, there really isn’t much to gainsay that proposition that people will ultimately pay for costs imposed on corporations. There is a lot room for debate about how that works (or doesn’t) and whether or not it adds up to the kind of policies Romney wants to advocate. But that is a debate in which those of us on the left have as much responsibility to chase the devil through the details as Romney and the conservatives.
It’s a lot easier to tell Romney that corporations aren’t really people.
And here is where questions about the willingness to grant someone the Principle of Charity shade into larger questions about whether or not one wishes meaningful dialogue with them to begin with. If you really are exploring an issue with someone, and if they are approaching it in the same spirit, then the effort to assess their views in the strongest light possible facilitates that discussion. If no such goodwill exists, then extending the benefit of the doubt can cost more than its worth.
If the target audience for a debate is more responsive to cheap shots and sound bites, then failure to respond on that level begins to look a lot less like the responsible (grown-up) approach to a discussion and a lot more like failure on the horizon, all the more so if the point of the debate is really is to win something (a legal case or an election for example). If the other guy is just being a jerk, then you can always walk away. But if that jerk is trying to take something of value, then it may well be time to roll up your sleeves and pull out that roll of dimes hidden in your pocket.
Metaphorically speaking, of course.
So, do you really want to have a thoughtful discussion, or do you just want to kick the other guy’s ass? I know the Dudley Dialogue-Right in me wants to say “let’s have that thoughtful discussion,” but years of figurative blunt head trauma combine with political realism to say that sometimes the answer is just ‘no’.
Sometimes the answer is ‘no’, because the larger social context removes all doubt as to intent (the California example); sometimes it’s ‘no’ because the expectations of dialogue are essentially “no quarter given” (Romney?); and sometimes the answer is ‘no’, because you just don’t want to grant any legitimacy to the other side. This is why responsible scholars rarely debate holocaust revisionists, flat-earthers, or creation science hacks. It’s why feminists often give Men’s Rights Activists the face-palm instead of an argument, and its one of the reasons that both sides of the recent debate over Atheism-Plus have done a wonderful job of talking right past one another (just to name a couple netroversies currently bubbling over in sundry parts of the blogosphere). It’s also why you should never read the comments on any article posted anywhere (except here). And of course it’s why only a fool would debate anyone with a 160 character limit on each tweet.
…okay guilty as charged on that last one, but the point stands.
There are of course many ways in which one can shut off meaningful dialogue with others, but at least one of them occurs when you are no longer willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt. One takes their statements at face value and fills in the ambiguities according to a standard script; the possibility that the other guy may have something more interesting in mind is simply not worth the effort to give him a chance. This isn’t the kind of approach folks normally recommend, but it is the kind many of us engage in at one time or another. Combine this with the increasing role of discursive minimalism in public discourse and we have an ever increasing premium on short snide answers to arguments that never really came into their own to begin with.
There is no clear formula here; no objective test to distinguish those who have earned the benefit of the doubt from those who haven’t. While it can be particularly satisfying to see someone you think unworthy of debate forced to talk to the hand, it is equally frustrating when you are looking at that palm yourself. When neither side of a given debate seems capable of engaging the other in meaningful discussion, the results range from entertaining to downright tragic, often within the space of a single paragraph.
I certainly don’t have any great notions about how to make the call, but I do find it a interesting feature of public debate.