This post will indulge my soccer mania…part 2. If you don’t care about soccer, the World Cup, or sports, you can safely ignore this post. Continue reading »
Bob Seidensticker, at Cross Examined, wrote a recent post using a thought experiment to comment on a difference between Christians and atheists regarding an openness to challenging information. The thought experiment goes as follows [he provides the thought experiment twice, but I have combined it into one]:
Imagine that [an atheist/a Christian] walks into a gathering of [Christians/atheists]. He says, “I hold in my hand a pamphlet that will rock your worldview. In fact, it will almost surely change your worldview. I have shown this to several hundred [Christians/atheists], and shortly after they read it, 90% admitted that [their faith in Christianity was pretty much gone/they saw the truth in Christianity].
“Now—who wants a copy?”
Seidensticker’s contention is that Christians would be reluctant to take a copy of the pamphlet while atheists would be more open to facing the challenge. He argues that Christians already bring a certain level of doubt to the table, so they would be reluctant to explore material that is likely to increase that doubt. Atheists, on the other hand, are said to hold their atheistic worldview due to the evidence before them. As such, the pamphlet would be viewed as another potential source of evidence worth considering.
My Take on Seidensticker’s Thought Experiment
It is possible that Seidensticker is correct in his conclusions about how the two groups would respond. However, I suspect his contentions are not accurate. However, I think their is a broader perspective that goes unexplored.
Seidensticker asks us if we would read the pamphlet. The biggest issue I have is with the pitch. Were I an atheist at the gathering to which the pamphlet-wielding Christian appears, I probably wouldn’t want to take the pamphlet because the presentation seems fake. It feels like chicanery. My everyday experience of someone making such claims is that said person is a flimflam man.
Of course, I don’t think this is Seidensticker’s intention. I think he wants the audience to take the pitchman as being sincere in his pitch and sincere in his results. The thing is, if we take the pitch and pitchman as sincere, then we are saying we genuinely think he has information that has changed the views of 90% of our peers. That is beyond overwhelming. Yes, I suspect an atheist would be willing to tackle a pamphlet converting 90% of his peers. However, I find it hard to believe that a doubting Christian would shy away from a pamphlet deconverting 90% of his peers.
Furthermore, I think we can point to the actions of Christians and evolution of Christian thought as evidence to back up the contention that they would be willing to face the challenge. The Protestant Reformation is perhaps a large example. However, I think you can even appeal to the more socially liberal strands of Christianity participating in the marriage-equality movement as evidence that Christians are willing to address and explore challenging information.
Certainly, one can point out that these examples don’t challenge the more foundational beliefs of Christianity (e.g., God’s existence and salvation through Christ); however, they represent a willingness to confront dogma. This, it seems to me, suggests Christians would be willing to read the pamphlet.
Yes, I’m Being Picky.
Interestingly, Seidensticker’s conclusion seems to be inconsistent with his thought experiment. We know that hundreds of Christians have read the pamphlet, and 90% of them have deconverted. However, Seidensticker concludes that Christians would not look at the pamphlet. Seidensticker needs Christians to be willing to read the pamphlet to give the thought experiment its force; however, he wants to conclude that they won’t, in turn, read the pamphlet.
I am happy to concede that I am being a bit picky in pointing this out; however, I think it is relevant. I suspect Seidentsticker had his conclusion in mind when he tried to construct the thought experiment. I suspect he wanted the thought experiment to act as an opening for brief commentary about a difference between Christians and atheists as regards worldview commitments.
To be honest, I can construe a sense in which his basic point is correct. When it comes to the values of the respective worldviews, there is an anti-abandoning system implicit within the Christian worldview that does not (at least obviously) exist within an atheistic worldview; namely, Heaven and Hell. This means there are at least some things (thoughts, actions, etc) that must be taboo in the Christian worldview, among the foremost being abandoning the worldview. In this way, we might consider an atheistic worldview more free to be explored and questioned.
Reading the comments section of Seidensticker’s post, a number of atheists do say that they would gladly read the pamphlet. Truth be told, a number of Christians say they, too, would read the pamphlet. I suspect, however, none are claiming they would take the challenge on principle and few actually think the challenge would radically alter their worldview.
If it were truly the case that the atheists would, on principle, jump at the opportunity to challenge their worldview, then an atheistic worldview would seem to offer little of value or substance. It may be brave and free, intellectually, to think one is always willing to challenge his or her worldview, but it seems like such a worldview utterly fails in other areas, like psychologically.
Yes, I believe a worldview should embrace a freedom of intellectual exploration. However, I think an individual should be cautious, at some level, in challenging their worldview. This gives me a certain empathy for that instinct in humans to dig our heels in when faced with cognitive dissonance. We may still be factually wrong, but the stubbornness is surely proper to some degree.
Worldviews and Substance
Whenever I hear a Christian preacher warn his parishioners against the loneliness and meaninglessness of living an atheistic life, I bristle. I get angry. It upsets me because it is a claim that is immediately falsified by my own, personal experience. I live the life I do; therefore, the preacher’s message is false.
It seems to me, if I should step up and face a potentially worldview-changing challenge without apprehension, my current worldview isn’t worth much. Thankfully, I would be apprehensive. And, my honest guess is, most atheists would be apprehensive as well. Let me try to tease out this instinct.
…With Another Thought Experiment
We’re faced with this pitchman telling us he has a pamphlet that will almost certainly convert us to Christianity. He has shown it to hundreds of our peers, and 90% have sincerely found it convincing and converted to Christianity. The pitchman makes one more comment, he overviews some of the shocking revelations inside.
It turns out that the message is an amalgamation of the most restrictive of fundamentalist Christianity and the Creativity movement. The information includes:
- Stoning your children when they misbehave to an extreme
- Women are to serve their husbands
- Sex is forbidden except for the purposes of procreation
- Homosexuality is forbidden
- Homosexual acts are to be punished by burning
- Whites are, in fact, superior to non-whites
- Enslaving non-white people is actually beneficial
And on and on. Of course, everything revealed in the pamphlet is morally good, objectively.
It has been read by hundreds of your peers and, with complete sincerity, it has convinced 90% of them to convert. Do you read the pamphlet?
I’m not sure I do. I would be impressed that, knowing all of the above is demonstrated in the pamphlet, 90% of my peers still converted. They were convinced. But, fuck, I’m not sure I’m ready to commit myself to that. I kinda want to stay ignorant of whatever information will convince me the above items are true.
The reason, importantly, is because those items all run counter to the good and positive and valuable parts of my worldview. My worldview provides a sense of ethics, values, aesthetics, and meaning that positively impact my life. They give my life and the experiences I have importance. No, I would not jump at the opportunity to take on a pamphlet that sincerely purports to convincingly demonstrate the very opposite of the positives of my current worldview. And I’m not entirely sure I should. Most relevantly, I think (and I hope) most atheists would be quite reluctant to read the pamphlet as well.
Worldviews, What do They Get Us?
Seidensticker concludes his post with a question:
What does this say about the truth of the Christian and atheist positions and the role of evidence in those worldviews?
Again, I think there is a sense in which intellectual curiosity is discouraged by the Christian worldview (see here, for example). This can be reinforced on an emotional level with concepts like Heaven and Hell and the fetishizing of concepts like (big O, big T) Objective Truth. In this way, we might answer Seidensticker’s question by saying that the Christian worldview is fine with truth insofar as that truth affirms the basic tenets of the Christian worldview. The atheistic worldview, alternatively, is skeptical and free to explore all available evidence.
However, a worldview is more than mere epistemology. It also gives meaning, purpose, and place to the individuals holding it. When considering information that is challenging to one’s worldview, these aspects are, presumably, just as important as the worldview’s epistemic values. I am not sure the Christian worldview is “better” than the atheistic worldview on these aspects; however, I feel comfortable suggesting that Christians are better than atheists as discussing and revealing how their Christian worldview impacts these aspects of their lives.
In this sense, we might call it a “win” for the Christian worldview.
Nelson Mandela died, today, at the age of 95. It brings me great joy to know lives like his can be lived.
[I had this post in my drafts, half completed, when I read and wrote about the Conan O'Brien tweet. I have left the original material intact. Everything that's new appears in the Other Thoughts section.]
The story at the heart of the back-and-forth between Myers and Firma is recent news that Al Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria beheaded an ally by mistake. Myers takes Firma to task for “celebrating a decapitation”. Myers suggests that Firma “dehumanize[s] people by calling them diseases” (emphasis in original). Lastly, he faults Firma for “using the Bible to justify violence.”
Though he may be my rival, I feel the need to come to the defense of Firma on this account. It seems to me Myers greatly misrepresents Firma’s original post. Though it may be fair to say the post delights in the irony of the situation, it seems an exaggeration to suggest Firma is “celebrating a decapitation”. Moreover, Firma does anything but “[use] the Bible to justify violence.” Firma quotes “live by the sword, die by the sword” to note that there is little shock in the fact that a violent extremist would meet a violent end, but this is hardly a justification.
Myers’s critique is perhaps on firmer ground regarding his suggestion that Firma “dehumanizes people by calling them diseases.” In the final paragraph of his original post, Firma says the following:
“Mohammed Fares [the man beheaded] was another Islamist boil on the ass of humanity. It’s an unpleasant procedure, but boils need to be lanced. Or beheaded — same thing.”
Myers is correct to point out that Firma equates Islamists (i.e., people) with boils. Being strict to form, Firma’s wording suggests we need to behead Islamists. But this is a rather ungenerous reading of the line. I don’t think it is a stretch to understand this to mean that humans need to rid themselves of violent religious extremism. I may want to make a stylistic critique, but I agree with the substance.
Firma wrote a response to PZ Myers. It contains an update in which he quotes Myers using a similar tone. Firma is on strong grounds to call Myers out on this. I don’t comment on Myers because I very rarely read his blog. But, back in the “accommodation wars” of 2010, Myers was often critiqued for the exact same approach Firma took in this post.
At its most basic level, my issue with Firma’s (and Myers’s, for that matter) writing is stylistic. I’d never read him until he was appearing on the Friendly Atheist blog. As I noted in the ‘Other Thoughts’ of my previous post, I think a large part of my issue with Firma is that his style and tone are very different from that taken by Hemant Mehta, and Mehta’s tone and approach are a large part of why I read the Friendly Atheist blog. My “rivalry” with him, at heart, is a self-mocking acknowledgment of this.
In most cases, I am neutral or in agreement with most of the points Firma makes, but I often dislike his style in expressing these points. I only comment on his posts when I have a substantive disagreement with him because there’s no point in simply railing against someone’s writing style.
Interestingly, in his response to PZ Myers, Firma also notes that he does not consider himself a Humanist (as he defines- “stressing the potential value and goodness of all human beings”). This, for sure, puts some perspective on his stylistic choices. In rejecting the “stressing” part of a humanist ethos, light is shed on why I often find his tone uncaring. I don’t mean to suggest he is uncaring, but he is not going to make an effort to stress care.
In my post on out-group shaming, I discussed that I understood a place for websites that aggregate negative stories. Firma’s Moral Compass site is an example of this. As a reader, because the content is focused on pointing out and criticizing negatives, one can become prone to read a certain delight or enjoyment into the authors motivations. It is easy to see their focus on negative stories as them actually taking pleasure in pointing them out. It is important to remember, as a reader, to not add motivations where they are not expressed. I say this as a personal reminder as much as a general reminder.
Finally, in his response to Myers, Firma notes that commentors on Myers’s post call Firma an Islamophobe. I have, likewise, noted that I find some of Firma’s posts borderline Islamophobic. Now, some of this comes down to style. It is easy to read more into Firma’s tone due to his style of writing. As noted above, PZ Myers has received plenty of criticism as having outright disdain for the religious because of his style of writing (see Firma’s update for a good example).
However, even if the author is not and never intends to write something bigoted or disdainful of a people, the combative style risks getting there anyway. Firma’s post on the Conan O’Brien tweet is, to my mind, a good example. To be completely honest, in the first draft of my post on the joke, I called Firma a bigot, outright. I reined in the language, obviously. However, I still clearly draw the connection. And, to my mind, for good reason.
The paragraph starting with “Muslims and their humorless advocates,” in context, is vile. If he removed or reworked that paragraph, I’d still disagree with his take on the backlash to the tweet, but his post would feel a lot less disdainful. When you skirt that line with your language and tone, you will cross it. It may not be intentional, but the effect is there, all the same.
Apparently, the Conan O’Brien twitter account tweeted about a new Marvel character, a Muslim woman. The tweet can be viewed at Firma’s post, but it reads:
“Marvel Comics is introducing a new Muslim Female superhero. She has so many more powers than her husband’s other wives.”
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Conan O’Brien received some backlash for the tweet. People found it to be in bad taste. Some even labeled the tweet “racist,” “bigotry,” and ”having a laugh at the marginalized.” As a result of the backlash and criticism, the tweet was deleted.
Comedy that makes an individual person or group of people the butt of a joke is likely going to offend. Of course, the mere fact that a joke is offensive (i.e., it offends somebody) doesn’t mean it should be condemned. Humor can be a tool for commentary and justice. As such, we must reserve the right to offend. However, this does not mean all offensive humor is in good taste. Sometimes, a joke is exploitative or bigoted. In these cases, it is worthy of condemnation.
Now, I am not bringing this up to pass judgment on the tweet. It was made; it received some backlash; it was taken down. So it is. I’m discussing this matter because Terry Firma’s commentary (admit it, you knew that was coming) on the episode is …how should I put this… interesting (bigoted? Islamophobic? fucking aweful?).
What’s Jeff On About This Time?
It is probably best that you read his post, but I will try to fairly summarize his argument. Basically, Firma notes that the joke is based on the “incontrovertible fact” that the Qu’ran permits polygamy. Because the joke is based on this fact, he treats the joke as akin to any other commentary on Islam.
From here, he proceeds to accuse the complainers of a double standard. He insists that, were the joke made at the expense of Mormons, there would not be the same backlash. Moreover, Firma uses the Mormons as an example of a religious group capable of taking a joke for their even-handed response to the Book of Mormon musical.
Unlike the Mormons, Muslims want special protections from criticism and ridicule. In Firma’s own words: “Muslims and their humorless advocates have no business claiming special treatment for Allah’s tribe. Like many other groups, atheists included, they’ll occasionally come in for a good ribbing. They should learn to like it.”
Throughout the post, Firma links to various examples of people being threatened or punished for using humor to criticize Islam. He links to an article about a Turkish pianist receiving a criminal conviction for joking about Islam on Twitter, an Australian university banning a satirical piece on Islam in fear of it inciting violent protest, and the section on the Charlie Hebdo Wikipedia page about the attacks on the magazine’s office because of an edition satirizing Islam.
It’s Just a Joke
In the comments section, there are a number of people who point out that this was just a joke. And, in a way, they are correct.
Was the joke distasteful? Yeah, probably.
Was it made at the expense of a marginalized group? Sure.
Did it possess any value as social commentary? No, not really.
Was it even funny? I don’t think so.
But was it some grotesque act of villainy? No. Far from it. This is your run-of-the-mill off-color joke. And, it seems to me, this is your run-of-the-mill backlash to an off-color joke.
It’s Just a Backlash
Recently, in Marietta, Georgia, a child bought a children’s book about color in Islamic culture while attending her school’s book fair. When the child brought the book home, her father was upset that she could get the book at the book fair. He didn’t want his daughter reading the book because “[t]hat culture there doesn’t seem to have anything good coming out of it.“
I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I suspect Terry Firma would be in complete agreement with the sentiment expressed by the child’s father. Other people see it as a sign of prejudice. The bad kind of prejudice. [Edit: Terry Firma has rightly called me out for this comment (see the comments section below). I will leave it in for posterity's sake while acknowledging its inappropriateness.]
In the United States, people are free to voice bigoted viewpoints. They can make off-color jokes. Heck, they can even make musicals poking fun at an entire religious group. As it turns out, people are also allowed to be offended by said bigoted viewpoints. They can be upset by off-color jokes, and they can let it be known that they are upset.
Furthermore, sometimes, an off-color joke appears on the twitter page of a comedian and late night television host. Occasionally, that comedian will receive some backlash for said off-color joke. If the comedian fears that the backlash will harm his career, he may feel motivated to delete the joke. He may, even, feel compelled to apologize.
You’re Either Criticizing Islam or You’re an Islamic Extremist Sympathizer
Apparently, this rather banal and benign description of what transpired is insufficient for Firma. No, the backlash Conan O’Brien is receiving should be lumped in with the criminalizing of blasphemy in Turkey, the censorship at the Australian university, and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Why? Well, the only unifying factor I can find is that the controversial comment relates to Islam.
It seems Firma is treating this with the same subtly President Bush brought to American foreign policy post-9/11 – you’re either with us or against us.
A sample of some of the backlash to O’Brien’s tweet can be found here. Here’s an example of one of the tweets:
@LVRiot13: “Really? We get a female Muslim super hero and you decide to diminish this victory with a cheap and tasteless joke? Disappointed”
@luckyturner: “she’s 16, AMERICAN and reps Jersey City (my town): She’s not an alien. You can do better, Coco”
Somehow, in Terry Firma’s mind, this is akin to Turkey arresting one of its citizens on blasphemy charges or extremists fire-bombing a magazine office simply because the causal factor in all three was a joke related to Islam.
Islam is not a Race
In his post, Firma noted that Islam is a religion, not a race. As such, the charge of racism is misguided. Terry Firma is correct. We should not confuse Islam (a religion) with a race (a group of people). Yet, he seems incapable of making this very same distinction when discussing Muslims. Remember, the joke hinged on an “incontrovertible fact” about Islam. However, Firma finds that the problem is “Muslims and their humorless advocates….” I’m sorry, Mr. Firma, but Islam (a religion) is not Muslims and their humorless advocates (a group of people).
I know what you’re thinking, I’m insisting upon a distinction without a difference. But, consider the joke and the backlash. It may hinge on a fact about Islam, but it is a joke about a Muslim girl. What people are objecting to is that the joke is made at the expense of a positive representation of a Muslim female, a person. They are not objecting to the fact that the joke relates to Islam, a religion.
It is one thing to not make this distinction and insist “it’s just a joke.” It is another thing, entirely, to miss this distinction and conclude that it is another example of “Muslims and their humorless advocates,” of “Allah’s tribe,” demanding special protection from criticism with criminal conviction or fire-bombed offices as a consequence of non-compliance. It seems to me, that requires a certain disdain for Muslims, the people, and not just Islam, the religion.
In a way, what bothers me most is that Firma’s posts are appearing on the Friendly Atheist blog. I’ve always valued that blog because it didn’t fall back on this “religion is evil (especially those rabidly violent Muslims)” bullshit. And, if you remove Firma’s posts, the blog otherwise stays true to form. But Terry Firma’s posts are a near unanimous example in delighting in the demonization of other people.
Here’s a quote from Austin Cline’s atheism.about page on respecting religion and theism:
“Second, beliefs themselves do not merit automatic respect and deference. Humans certainly deserve some basic level of respect and respectful treatment, but beliefs aren’t people.”
I really don’t see this as all that difficult to apply. Yet, over and over again, Firma seems to fail in applying this rule. I suspect this failure is on purpose.
Saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is not a war on Christmas.
Every time a classic film gets a remake or needless sequel, a puppy is drowned.
Thank you, Hollywood, for It’s a Wonderful Life 2. I look forward to the prequel that is now an inevitability.
I want to offer a defense of doubt. Far from an ailment, I would suggest that doubt is a virtue. I do not intend this response to be any sort of direct critique of MV’s post. The concerns she raises about doubt are legitimate, but she underdetermines the role doubt plays in life.
“Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis.” -Jack Handey
Doubt moderates credulity and mitigates gullibility.
“Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” -Voltaire
Doubt permits us to question. It humbles.
“You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. ” -Robert M. Persig
Doubt troubles. It is a source of vitality.
“The relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one. Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt.” -Rollo May
Doubt solidifies commitment.
“The problem with certainty is that it is static; it can do little but endlessly reassert itself. Uncertainty, by contrast, is full of unknowns, possibilities, and risks.” -Stephen Batchelor
Doubt opens new possibilities. It suggests a new path.
“We’ll never survive!”
“Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.” -William Goldman
And, yes, doubt hinders. Doubt halts. Doubt kills opportunity.
Like many virtues, doubt must be balanced. It must be kept in check. But we would suffer if we rid ourselves of it completely.
Nietzsche called doubt the beautiful luxury of a strong faith. By this, I think he meant that, as certainty is neared, one is permitted to doubt. Questioning, revisiting, and exploring, therefore, become possible again.
My best attempt at an aphorism for doubt: Doubt is the enemy of beginnings and the friend of ends.
*MV is short for MommyVerbs, the nom de plume of the eponymous blog’s author. Congrats on being freshly pressed.
In a matter of minutes, Iceland will kick off the first leg of their world cup qualifier against Croatia. Croatia are definitely the heavy favorites. Iceland have never previously qualified for a world cup. Also, if they did qualify, Iceland would become the smallest nation (by population -and by a long shot, too, I’m pretty sure) to have ever qualified for the world cup.
Let’s go Iceland.
Fill the moments building up to kick off by celebrating some of Iceland’s musicians:
Of Monsters and Men
*Though I haven’t thought up a clever name yet (like the Melodrama in Ljubljana), I’ve written a few times about the questionable approach taken by Terry Firma and Sam Harris when offering critiques of religion (here and here are two good examples). So, I figure, to help drum up controversy, I’m declaring an official rivalry between myself and the combined forces of Sam Harris and Terry Firma (don’t sweat the details).
Obviously, the rivalry thing is mostly tongue-in-cheek (mostly), but Fincke’s post does a good job of explaining how the approach is harmful.
If you have suggestions for the name of my new, public, intellectual rivalry, please submit them in the comments section. (Bonus points for good alliteration.)
In line with all the great achievements of the greatest of men, here is part one of my reading project – years late and accomplishing a fraction of what I promised.
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
I’m glad I read this book in my 30s. However, the “moral of the story”, to my mind, is one best learned in one’s 20s. This is the paradox of the novel. The extra decade of living needed to understand that the story is about the narrator and not Dean is a decade you don’t want to lose.
Lesson for Men: Though sex may be acceptable as either a sport or a pastime, women are neither.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
In high school, I worked at a pizza place. One night, I closed the restaurant with two of my co-workers, both female peers I found attractive. After work, they decided to drive out to the sand pits and get high.
Though a veritable teetotaler in high school, I was excited to join them. I had a bit of a crush on one girl; the second girl had a bit of a crush on me. Both were cool kids, generally.
We got in the van, drove out to the sand pits, and hung out. They got high; we listened to loud music and joked around. After an hour or so, they drove me home.
My experience of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was like that evening. It was a good experience, in general, but I was left feeling like more should have happened and wondering if I missed out on something.
Lesson for Men: “Booze takes a lot of time and effort if you’re going to do a good job with it.” Raymond Carver said this before the rise of microbreweries and homebrewing. These days, enjoy with moderation.
Other Random Thoughts:
- Salter’s prose is amazing. He just crafts amazing sentences.
This is what allows him to write rather explicit depictions of sex without ever crossing the line into pulp. I’m not even sure it can be considered erotica. His writing can get hot, but it remained literary without becoming titillating.
- Truth be told, I suspect part of what I found lacking from Carver is more a reaction to reading Carver after Salter.
Carver’s style is sparse, minimalist. It is different than Salter’s sing-songiness (I’m not sure if ‘lyrical’ properly captures my experience of Salter). Had I read Carver first, or allowed more time between reading the two, I suspect I would have enjoyed him more.
- Carver writes with a strong, male voice.
I both love and loath authors that can write in a strong male voice. It is easy to want to identify one’s masculinity with that of the character given a strong, male voice (in fact, I think a large number of the books suggested by Esquire are suggested because their authors can write with a strong, male voice).
The problem arises when the masculinity on display in the novel is misogynistic. Charles Bukowski, to my mind, is a good example of this. Read Women (on Esquire’s list). Bukowski is great with the everyman man’s man. But, my goodness, is he misogynistic.
Now, let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that misogynistic characters shouldn’t be written. I just worry, when they’re written well, do they seem more appealing than they should? I hope not, but I worry.