Sunday, July 22, 2012

Politeness in religious discussions


Dan Dennett makes a great point.  There is no easy or polite way for an atheist to call into question someone's lifelong devotion to religion.  At the same time, there is no diplomatic way for a religious person to tell an atheist that he or she is going to hell.  Where does that leave us?  Can theists and non-theists discuss religious topics without automatically offending each other?

I believe they can, but it will likely require atheists to be more sensitive to theists than the other way around.  I could care less whether a Christian tells me I am going to hell.  I don't believe in hell.  However, much of the emotion evidenced by theists when their worldview is called into question is indicative of the weakness of their faith.  Terror Management Theory (TMT) predicts that religious faith is used by some theists to manage their fear of death. Experiments that purposefully challenge a believer's faith, even in subtle ways, have produced disproportionately large emotional reactions.

Should atheists, however, have to tiptoe around religion in order to not offend believers? Sam Harris doesn't think so.  As I mentioned in What the Frak?, Harris advocates for a "conversational intolerance" in which personal convictions are scaled against evidence, and where intellectual honesty is demanded equally in religious views and non-religious views. He suggests that, just as a person declaring a belief that Elvis is still alive would immediately make his every statement suspect in the eyes of those he was conversing with, asserting a similarly non-evidentiary point on a religious doctrine ought to meet with similar disrespect.

I prefer more of a middle ground. I don't think conversational intolerance should be employed in every discussion. I don't generally seek out Christians in order to debunk their religion. However, if they open the door by discriminating against atheists or attempting to enforce their beliefs on society, I have no problem with telling them that their entire lives have been devoted to a delusion. Politeness has its limits. Likewise, there are some places where believers should expect to hear venting by non-believers, such as Internet forums. There is a difference between vocal conversations in which it may be difficult to retreat and written communications in which believers and non-believers can simply choose to stop reading.

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