Bah! Humbug!

In a challenging and thoughtful comment on our recent post about tolerance, our reader Addofio chides me for the disdainful tone I have taken in some of my criticism of religion. She recommends that we discuss ideas, however preposterously absurd, in emotionally neutral terms, as a gesture of respect for the people who hold them. Should we try always to do this when discussing any idea, no matter what the idea, or the context? Is it even possible to do so? What are emotions for, anyway? And is everyone entitled to this sort of respect?

I must point out first of all that it is quite impossible to make any selection between competing ideas without involving an emotional valuation. Every choice must be weighed in accordance with some aim, some goal, which it advances or impedes, and at bottom is always some affinity or aversion. And even the simplest of evaluative terms — “right”, “wrong, “good idea”, “bad idea” — carry this emotional luggage. Even “correct” or “mistaken” do, though they bury them a little deeper: “correct” means simply “with the right”, and the message of “mis-taken” is obvious enough.

Addofio is quite right that there is a range of language we can use: to say that an idea “may be mistaken” certainly seems gentler than to say it is addle-pated rubbish. It also has the effect, however, of flattening the scale. Some ideas are Good Tries that happen to be near misses, while others actually are addle-pated rubbish — and English has a range of words and expressions that allows us to make this distinction. To narrow the permissible range of expression so as to describe the truly worthless ideas in the same way as their betters may leave more feathers unruffled, but it also may give the counterproductive impression that the worst sort of foolishness is worth far more than it actually is. Some ideas are more wrong than others. To pretend that, for example, young-Earth creationism is a “respectable” position, on an intellectual par with our modern scientific understanding of the facts of life’s history, is to give it more standing than it deserves. It is for much the same reasons that civilized governments do not negotiate with hostage-takers.

Some memes are such toxic pollutants of the human mind that to dignify them with a neutral affective response is entirely unwarranted — and when confronting them, a negative emotional valuation is not only justifiable, but arguably ought to be made quite explicit. It is not the case, after all, that a religious system that encourages suicidal martrydom for the sake of slaughtering infidels is simply an idea with certain logical weaknesses. It far more than that: it is a bad idea, a dangerous idea, an abhorrent idea, and to pretend otherwise to avoid giving offense is not to be polite; it is to be supine.

Addofio makes a distinction between an exchange being on the level of feelings or on the level of ideas. But that we are having a dispute in the first place is only because we have feelings about ideas. We react to ideas with the full range of emotions: some are repugnant, others threatening, while others arouse strong, or even fanatical, approval. We make no objection, after all, to expressing our feelings about ideas — to describing them in emotionally charged terms — when they are “brilliant”, or “wonderful”, or “promising”, etc. So if the point of our criticism is forcefully to dissuade others from adopting the idea in question, it is quite understandable that we will use aversive language in addition to parsing its logical weaknesses. It may be, as Addofio suggests, that using such language will serve only to provoke a defensive reaction in those who hold the views we disparage, getting in the way of our bringing them round with the cogency of our argument. But it is rare that those in the grip of absurd religious views are ever argued out of them anyway. The target audience is those who have not yet succumbed, and sounding the alarm with strong language may alert them to their peril.

We may disagree about what, exactly, “respect for humanity” entails. In virtue of what, exactly, are humans worthy of respect? Simply for being born? Any beast can manage that. So what is it that sets us apart? I would say, if it to be anything more than mere convention, that it is that we are capable, unlike any other animal, of free choices, of being responsible for the selves we become. If this, then, is the basis of respect, then the respect we accord others will depend on the choices they have made, and the selves they have created.

Some, more than others, have the freedom and cognitive capacity to take greater responsibility: we do not disrespect children for believing fairy-tales, precisely because, due to their immaturity, ignorance, and undeveloped critical-thinking skills, we understand their responsibility to be diminished. The same applies to the mentally retarded, the insane, and those who, due to the circumstances of their lives, have had their possibilities circumscribed. I would hardly blame a Sentinelese Islander for having a primitive and superstitious worldview; if I were given the task of explaining the wider world to him, I would feel no inclination to chide him for his ignorance. The same does not apply, however, to a creationist school-board member from Kansas, who ought to know better. If you are an ostensibly mature and responsible adult, one who expects the full measure of respect we grant such people, then you should expect to be judged on the basis of what sort of self you have created — responsibility for which is the foundation of such respect in the first place. If you have chosen to be an otiose layabout, a repulsive boor, a child-molester, or a flim-flam artist, you should not expect to be widely admired. This extends to the ideas we hold: most people in these parts don’t “respect the humanity” of white supremacists, Nazis, or anti-Semites; in the left-leaning districts where I make my home the same withering contempt is directed toward Republicans, laissez-faire capitalists, opponents of gay marriage, and so forth. All this is because of the memes they have chosen to populate their minds with: because of the selves they have made. As I have pointed out before, it is not at all unusual to hear George W. Bush’s supporters excoriated in the most pejorative terms; neoconservative Republicans are publicly referred to as “idiots”, “morons” and so forth. Nobody seems particularly concerned about respecting their humanity — precisely because, as mature humans, they are held responsible for being what they are, and espousing the views they do. Whether they made themselves into something worthy of respect was up to them, and they blew it. They are not respected because in the opinion of their critics they could have, and ought to have, done a better job.

But although we are well accustomed to hearing harsh reviews in the arena of politics and culture — reviewers of books or movies, for example, are often downright contemptuous, and quite untroubled by any obligation to “respect” the author or auteur responsible for the work at hand — the rules seem very different when the topic is religion. For some reason, although we would have no qualms about describing a poorly-conceived political scheme as foolish and ignorant policymaking, or some awful novel as trite and badly written, we must stop short when considering religious beliefs, some of which happen to be among the weirdest and most pernicious notions ever to hijack and befuddle the human mind. In the unique case of religious ideas, suddenly we must, out of “respect” for the minds that harbor them, address these ideas not with the scorn and contumely they deserve, but with bloodless and value-neutral dispassion. This deeply entrenched taboo against stern criticism is nothing more than a clever mechanism that religious systems use to defend themselves against the erosive effect of skepticism — and we have indulged it, at immense cost, for far too long.

I’m afraid I have probably, with this prickly and provocative post, just bought myself a peck of trouble, and given some of you the impression that I have no interest in civil discourse. I hope that regular readers will know that this is hardly the case. But I will not refrain from speaking frankly: the stakes are too high. There are in this world a great many ideas competing for sovereignty among human minds — some that are of great and ennobling worth, others that are seductive and dangerous narcotics. There are decent, respectable people, and there are swaggering, ignorant bullies. There are good and wise men and women, and there are swindlers, mountebanks and fools. There is truth, and there is arrant nonsense. I am going to call them as I see them.

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  1. Addofio says

    You’ve meandered around a bit in this post, so that I hardly know what to respond to. So I will restrict myself to one point, related to what I was saying in my previous comment that you cite.

    When I talk about “basic respect”, I am not talking about respect in the sense of admiration or high esteem. I am talking about something much more basic than that. It has more to do with acknowledgement of our common humanity than with high esteem or admiration.

    Now, there are many people who are very ready to deny the humanity of others on one basis or another, and you may be among them. I, however, believe that, while we can and often should condemn the actions, or for that matter the words, of another, or restrain them from taking certain kinds of actions (even arguably to the point of killing them in some cases–I tend to waffle on that one), and stand in the way of their justification of such actions in whatever way we can–we nonetheless all share a basic humanity and that this should be respected. I need not admire George Bush (and don’t), and I am disgusted at many of his actions–but however reluctantly, I must acknowledge his humanity, and respect that.

    I suppose that the respect I am talking about is, in a sense, respect due to one simply by virtue of that person’s having been born. (You sneer that “any beast can manage that;” yes, and to me that also earns them a level of respect in the sense I am talking about.) We all (humans; now I’m back to humans) come into this world willy-nilly, and we all have to face the reality of our own mortality, and we all do this as conscious beings. We must earn positive esteem, especially as adults, as you point out, and some people are certainly more admirable than others–though I would lay pretty long odds that my list of admirable peopel and yours would differ significantly–but that’s not what I am talking about with the term “basic respect”.

    A lot of people do not accord this basic respect to all other humans, reserving it for those of their own kind, however they may define that consciously or unconsciously. I strongly suspect that this is a tendency bred into us by our evolution as a social species. I also think that getting past that–learning to accord this basic respect of which I speak to the entire human species–is, if you will, a meme (I hate that word, but you like it, so there it is) that is part of the “learning curve” for us as a species if we are to survive (which doesn’t look all that sure a thing these days, I know.) In any case, it is in direct competition with the “toxic memes” you so frequently cite in your blanket condemnation of religion.

    I said I’d stick to one point, and I’m on at least point 1.5, so I’ll stop here.

    Posted November 30, 2008 at 11:05 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Addofio,

    Yes, this post wasn’t as focused as it might have been, I admit, and wasn’t one of my best.

    You sum things up nicely here:

    A lot of people do not accord this basic respect to all other humans, reserving it for those of their own kind, however they may define that consciously or unconsciously. I strongly suspect that this is a tendency bred into us by our evolution as a social species.

    I quite agree.

    I also think that getting past that–learning to accord this basic respect of which I speak to the entire human species–is, if you will, a meme (I hate that word, but you like it, so there it is) that is part of the “learning curve” for us as a species if we are to survive (which doesn’t look all that sure a thing these days, I know.) In any case, it is in direct competition with the “toxic memes” you so frequently cite in your blanket condemnation of religion.

    I don’t know why you object to the word “meme”; I think it picks out a very useful concept. But yes, you’ve put your finger on it: the conflict here is a war of ideas; memes that move us beyond the “toxic” my-group-my-religion memes that have hold of so many minds are exactly what I am promoting. The old ones may have served us adaptively enough in a simpler and less-crowded world, but now they are a problem, and ought to go (though I do not make an undifferentiated, “blanket” condemnation of religion; some are quite harmless, while others pose a serious threat to us all).

    Again: my beef is not with people, but ideas. I will not be kind to ideas that I think are foolish and destructive. I am certainly not de-humanizing anyone, and agree with you about a bedrock level of consideration that it is in our interest to accord everyone who has not actively and willfully forfeited it (we may disagree about what level of “respect” that entails, but I agree with you in principle).

    I would like to pursue this with you further; I am not a monster, Addofio (you might be surprised at how congruent our list of admirable people would be). I will be offline all day, though, at the hospital with my elderly mother-in-law.

    Posted November 30, 2008 at 12:02 pm | Permalink
  3. Give my best regards to Nina’s Mom & I hope she has a speedy recovery. You can tell her that I remember the afternoon when I met her & the rest of her clan as though it was yesterday.

    Posted November 30, 2008 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  4. JK says


    I’m with Addofio and, apparently the Judiciary of one of the more “tolerant” nations of the Mid-East. How can we not be tolerant when we see such honorable conduct between brothers in law?,21985,24738087-663,00.html

    And of course there’s this:

    Now let’s be tolerant here.

    Posted December 1, 2008 at 5:57 pm | Permalink
  5. PDG says

    Tolerance is not acceptance. I can accept someone hating me- but not acting out on their hate-that is something up with which I shall not put-

    my point being that violence is the point of departure and that can be verbal (written ) -too
    I’ve heard recently a mom “caused” the suicide of a teenager who upset her with scathing remarks over the internet-

    so for my way of thinking, we need to be mindful of how we comport ourselves -civics 101 should be a prerequisit to graduating elementary school!

    someone once said to me if push comes to shove -learn to fly- I find that impracticle advice,

    instead I learned enough martial arts to give flying lessons to those who shove me-(Mac being much better than I in that regard!!)-

    In any case violence should be our last & worst choice of activity… which is the root of tolerance for me -how much do I tolerate before I kick some ass? -I’d like to think I have a very long fuse that runs to some serious explosives-

    as far as hurtful speach goes I laugh in their general direction!- my back is as a duck’s-quack quack-
    love to all-Pat

    Posted December 2, 2008 at 11:39 am | Permalink