[Blogathon] Emotion-based Arguments and the Atheist Community

We know that much of our morality comes from visceral emotions rather than pure, crystalline reasons. We know that Kant’s categorical imperative not to murder comes long after the evolution of human disgust at the thought of killing someone in the in-group. We know that a great deal of anti-gay sentiment comes from the notion that men having sex with men is icky. And since we know these things, we also know that sometimes,even if reasonable-seeming arguments exist for some position, they are predicated primarily on some deep emotional basis. If we were to recognize this in ourselves, it would be very important for us to reconsider our position, and be sure that we weren’t just sticking to it because it was so uncomfortable not to.

There are two potential examples of this in the online atheist community. Now, I don’t want to imply that there are no good arguments on the issues I’m about to present, or that everyone’s just being irrational. Only that on these issues, I think there is more emotional motivation than we as skeptics should be comfortable with, in large part because good evidence on the issue is difficult to find or thoroughly absent, leaving us with only our gut reactions.

Issue 1: The Badness of Infighting

We online atheists have been talking about infighting pretty much as long as we’ve been infighting. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it harmful? A lot of people really don’t like it, think it’s divisive, bad for the movement and all around ill-advised. Now, they could certainly be right. Beth Ann Erikson has made very compelling arguments that infighting makes the community look very bad from the outside, which discourages people from joining us and fails to give new atheists a safe place to land. I often think that while arguing against sexism and racism is very important, one of the most powerful things we can do is just to keep writing, keep blogging, about sexism and racism more generally, but also about just everyday skeptic and atheist topics.

All that said, my distinct impression is that the reason people don’t like atheist infighting is because it’s uncomfortable. If you don’t have a dog in the fight, it can feel exactly like holiday dinners where dad is mad at sister, and aunt’s not talking to uncle, and grandma is lecturing brother for not saying grace and standing up for his atheist principles, and you’re there, tense, anxious, staring at your turkey getting cold and wishing everyone would just calm down.

I understand this feeling, I do. But I think it’s misguided. We’re not at a holiday table, after all. Most of us don’t know each other in real life. That doesn’t mean real feelings aren’t at stake, but it does mean that it might be easier to distance yourself from the people doing harm. Most importantly, we’re not physically trapped. No one is keeping us on the internet. We are free to leave, to engage in self-care, to rant and vent to our friends, or simply to do something else for a while which will alleviate the discomfort.

That means all that’s left to argue about is whether there are empirically demonstrable harms or benefits that come from “infighting”, and that’s a dreadfully hard question to answer. But whatever our position, we should try to make sure it’s based on fact and not preference or discomfort.

Issue 2: Accomodationism vs Confrontationalism

This is an old debate in the atheist movement, so perhaps I’m behind the times, but I remember when it was The Thing To Talk About, back in 2010 or so. The question was: how nice should atheists be to religious believers? Should we mock their beliefs? Argue against them stridently? Be charitable? Not argue at all? Try instead to build bridges? Now, this ended up being even more complicated than I’ve laid out here, because people were actually asking totally different questions from each other. Some people claimed that it was simply the moral choice to argue fiercely against religion, no matter what the consequences. Some people distinguished between criticizing people and criticizing belief. Some people argued that either mocking and stridency or gentleness and charity were empirically more likely to convince religious believers. We had consequentialism, deontology and personal preference all jumbled up and split roughly into two opposing camps. It was a mess. And even on the empirical stuff, we don’t really know what convinces people to change their minds in the long term, especially on big issues like religion.

This makes this issue ripe for being primarily motivated by emotion rather than reason. In this case, I think the motivating emotion is distaste. People who like criticizing religion harshly find it completely distasteful, yes, icky, when they read people saying that it doesn’t matter if theistic claims aren’t true, it only matters what theists do, or saying that we should overlook our differences in order to engage in interfaith work. And I think that people who don’t like confrontation, who personally prefer to avoid it, who are uncomfortable at the metaphorical holiday dinner tables, find it extremely distasteful to watch the PZ Myerses of the world lambast and tear apart religious commenters or bloggers, pulling no punches. It’s gross to them. It’s just too much.

And I respect people’s personal preferences. Certainly people should choose for themselves what type of argument to engage in (though if we find that one approach is strikingly more effective than another, perhaps we might have some oblgation to subsume our discomfort for the good of atheist activism (if convincing religious people they’re wrong is to you a worthwhile goal)). But distaste is not a good argument. If we’re criticizing the argument styles of others (and I do it all the time), we should make sure it’s coming from a place of reason and evidence, just like everything else.


By no means do I think everyone engaging in these discussions is irrational, or has no good arguments. But I think anyone arguing on these issues should be examining their arguments with extra scrutiny, so as not to fall into the trap of constructing arguments ad hoc to fit their preconceived emotional stance.

What do you all think? Am I completely wrong? Are these not the motivating emotions at all? I’d love to hear in comments!

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12 thoughts on “[Blogathon] Emotion-based Arguments and the Atheist Community

  1. Cornelioid says:

    I don’t see discomfort as an inadequate reason to stifle infighting, at least in certain places. Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between the atheist blogosphere in its entirety (within which all styles and tones find welcome homes and no topic is consistently off-limits) and certain subspheres of it in which certain topics are excluded in order to make the environment more welcoming, especially for people who don’t have friends to vent to or spaces of our own to engage in the discussions we want—that is, those of us for whom the atheist or skeptic or whatever community is online. The SGU is a good example of this: Topics not firmly within the domain of science (including not only unfalsifiable religious ideas but also many political and philosophical topics) are intentionally omitted, with the (by most accounts successful) aim of bringing together a religiously and otherwise ideologically diverse audience. They may rage against one another elsewhere, and even against one or another SGU panelist, but they share the SGU itself.

    This strikes me as very much the kind of dinner-table analogy you argue against, though i think it survives your objection (though i might have misinterpreted).

    • Chana says:

      Oh, I definitely agree with you. Discomfort, since it is a harm, is a perfectly good reason to try to reduce infighting. “It’s making everyone uncomfortable!” is a great argument for squelching infighting, especially, as you say, in subspaces where people might want to escape from the fighting.

      But that requires people to consciously acknowledge their discomfort and claim it as a valid reason. What I see instead is people masking their discomfort with ad hoc arguments for why infighting is bad for the community, like its being intrinsically divisive or hopelessly futile.

      Does that clarification help?

      • Cornelioid says:

        Yep! I see (now) that you’re distinguishing discomfort as a bias versus as a premiss. One might make the argument that this kind of environment is a prerequisite for some of us acknowledging the extent to which we are made uncomfortable by the tone of discourse (as opposed to exposing our vulnerabilities in an inhospitable environment), but that’s a bit of a sidestep. Thanks.

  2. I feel like the best example of emotion-based arguments in the atheist community has been all of this infighting about harassment policies and such. If I had to pick one thing that had most seriously damaged my confidence in the skeptical/rationalist movement as a group of people who are actually more skeptical or rational than average, that argument is the thing I would pick. I have never seen a single person offer up an argument against harassment policies that had even a distant relationship with rationality.

    It seems like there is a risk, when associating with a community like this, of assuming that your rationality is superior in all arenas just because you read about rationality a lot. Dawkins is the perfect example — incredibly well spoken, intelligent, and rational on some things, but Dunning Kruger on others.

    At the end of the day, I think one of the most important guards against emotion-based arguments is to constantly ask yourself, when someone else disagrees with you, “When I think about how to respond to this person, am I asking myself how they are wrong, or am I asking myself whether or not they are wrong?” I think the former is what tends to happen when too much emotion and not enough thought are happening, and it’s very easy to miss if you’re not on guard against it.

    • Chana says:

      Your last paragraph is perfect and exactly right on. That’s exactly how we check ourselves properly.

      Second paragraph I agree with as well.

      I’m wondering what you think the emotion behind the aversion to harassment policies is. I totally agree that they’re emotional, rather than rational arguments, but what is that emotion? Hatred of feminism? Irritation at being treated anything like a child? What’s behind it all?

      • Honestly, it’s hard to say. If I had to guess, I would guess that it’s largely a factor of two things: first, men not understanding why the policies are important, and not having the sense of perspective to realize that their experience of things may not be indicative of women’s experience of things (roughly, “it’s not a big deal to me, therefore it’s not a big deal”). Second, that if you already feel inadequate about your ability to interact with women, and your ability to interact with women is something you feel a significant amount of insecurity about (as I imagine is true for many, many men, given our society), then anything that seems to further restrict your opportunities to interact with them feels like a personal threat. It means you have even fewer chances than you had before to accomplish something, anything that might even temporarily assuage that insecurity.

        Take these somewhat with a grain of salt. At the end of the day, I’m grasping at straws to try to explain, but these are the straws that feel the most promising to me as potential sources of the powerful emotions behind such vacuous arguments.

  3. Also, the dinner table analogy is perfect.

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