[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.

Conclusion

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!

Green Donate

Advertisements

[Blogathon] On Challenging Religious Beliefs

I have a confession to make: I have an entirely negative attitude towards people who ask religious people about their beliefs. When I hear at a party, “But how do you know God exists?” or when I hear over a Friday night dinner table, “But what about the contradictions in the bible?” or anything similar in any social situation, I cringe and walk the other way. Part of that is for decent reasons: I have no reason to expect that anything will be said I haven’t heard a hundred times before, the conversation is likely to be unproductive and/or combative, and there’s high probability of someone getting offended or upset. I honestly don’t want any part of that, especially in a social context.

But that doesn’t really excuse how little I think of the people asking. If I’m being honest, I see asking such questions as low-status. They are, to me, a marker of a 101-type, a newly christened atheist still asking the basic questions. Atheism is boring, after all. There are so many other questions to discuss besides God. I would obviously never be so gauche as to ask my friends what evidence they have for god; my intellectual sophistication means that I instead discuss Talmudic sources and argue about the consistency of John Calvin’s theology.

This is what a page of Talmud looks like, by the way

This attitude also means I’ve bought wholeheartedly into the truth of the Courtier’s Reply. That is, atheists are silly to counter the claims of fundamentalists or youtube commenters. Those are easy to rebut. If you were to read Platinga (I haven’t) or Calvin or Luther or Vatican II, you would understand. Again, it’s a marker of low-status to be pointing out silly things like lack of evidence or evil in the world. Haven’t you examined the best possible counterarguments to your position? Humph, done with you, I’m off to read Luke Muelhauser and Leah Libresco, they’re atheists (or used to be) who take religion seriously.

Now, I’m not throwing out all of this approach. I do think discussions about God at a party are largely uninteresting and unproductive, I do think asking such questions gives me good evidence that someone is a 101 level atheist, and I do think that atheists could stand to know more about common counterarguments to their positions.

But I am deeply questioning the morality and accuracy of my position. Firstly, the sneering superiority really isn’t a good look for anyone. Atheism isn’t my primary hobbyhorse, and I might argue it shouldn’t be anyone’s, but that doesn’t mean that the people who like to argue about it a lot or talk about it a lot are to be looked down on. People have their interests and their preferences, and it’s much more appropriate for me to disagree with the extent to which these people have implicitly prioritized their atheism than to dismiss them entirely. (Somewhat to my credit, consistency-wise, is that I tend not to have a lot of patience for anyone who has just the One Big Thing that they care about, hence my general disapproval of hedgehogs. But the whole low-status business is pretty disgusting on my part.)

Furthermore, some subset of the people who talk about atheism a lot online or in person are new to atheism. Anyone new to a belief system and community deserves the space and patience to do the whole 101-thing, to figure it out for themselves. We should be happy and excited that they’re asking questions and being skeptical, and recognize that there are things we’re all still figuring out. That’s how we make atheism a safe place to land.

Also, I’m often secretly happy that this kind of person challenges religious people, and actually makes them argue for their position. As we know, religious people frequently get a pass on their beliefs that no one else gets on any other type of belief, and I’m only contributing to that state of events by not asking. Good on them for being willing to have the intense conversations, even if I wish they were more charitable and/or less focused on “winning.” And after all, without Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Jacoby, Dennet and others writing books that tackle these issues, the atheist movement really wouldn’t be what it is today, whatever else one might say about them.

On the empirical part, I’m currently reading the entirety of Calvin’s Institutes for a class, and I recently attended a Veritas Forum on Truth and Tolerance that I livetweeted. You know what I’ve noticed? The sophisticated arguments for the truth of scripture and the existence of God? Really not much better than the ones I see on facebook every day. Why is humanity sinful? Because of the fall. Why did god make us fall? He didn’t, we did. Then we have free will? No. Then why is it our fault? It was necessary, but also voluntary. Why would god make our wills such that we would fall? God is perfect. Really? Yes. (The format is different, but this is the actual content of Calvin’s argument). Similarly, the Christian (David Skeel) at the Veritas forum made utterly uncompelling arguments for the existence of god and the redemption of Christ. So I seem to have been wrong about at least a large part of the my belief in the Courtier’s Reply.

That’s why at the Veritas Forum, I asked Professor Skeel what it was like to live in a world where most of the people he cares about and interacts with were going to hell. He’s a public intellectual, making public claims about the nature of the world I think are both wrong and disturbing. Many, many other religious people are making similar claims, equally wrong and equally distressing. They should have to defend those claims, and the fact that I think it’s boring or low-status to be the one to make them doesn’t erase that truth.

Professor Skeel himself

Now, I think there’s a difference between public intellectuals and people at a party or online. And I think there’s definitely a difference between people who personally believe things and people who are very public about them. But I no longer think it is a useless or rude thing to ask about and challenge religious beliefs (except when it is, and I trust my readers can figure out appropriate contexts). I may still find it uninteresting, and I may still find many of the actual arguments made in such discussions uncharitable or badly made, but I am committed to working on no longer seeing the very act of asking as a low-status thing to do, as something worthy of derision. On the contrary, it’s deeply important.

Green Donate

Stop FAPing!

If a female Graylag Goose sees an egg outside of its nest, she will initiate a series of behaviors intended to get the egg back into the nest with her beak. She will complete these same actions if she sees an egg-shaped object outside its nest, like a golf ball or a door-knob. But far more hilarious than that, if the goose starts bringing the egg into her nest, and the egg is taken away during the process, the goose will not stop until she is done bringing the invisible egg into her nest. It’s behavior that simply does not adjust to new stimulus. This is what’s called a fixed-action pattern (FAP).

You may think you’ve never seen such a bird in your life, but I assure you that you have seen a very similar behavior, which I call a fixed-argument pattern (FAP). You see, if a FAPer sees a conversation or argument taking place about a topic on which s/h/ze has a strong opinion, s/h/ze will make their favorite argument. Even if the argument is actually only shaped or colored like the argument they thought it was. Even if the argument ends, or becomes about something entirely different. It doesn’t matter. A FAPer will continue to make the same argument they always make, bravely undeterred by the inappropriate context or situation. Now I bet you’ll agree that you’ve seen this kind of FAPing going on in all kinds of arguments and discussions, on-line and off-line.

That guy on facebook who comments on every atheist-related status or discussion with an extended analysis of how you are sure to find God eventually or why the dinosaur bones are there to trick us, even if you were talking about North Carolina trying to institute a state religion or the importance of Bayes’ rule?

FAPer.

The woman in your social circle who always manages to work into a discussion that the Democratic and Republican parties are identical, corporate-owned cesspools of hypocrisy and mendacity, even if you were talking about comparing the intervention in Libya to that in Bosnia, or whether or not Hillary Clinton will run in 2016?

FAPer.

The genderqueer person you know who, seemingly upon hearing just the phrase “power of suggestion” will start quoting Tim Minchin’s Storm at full volume and railing against New Age things, even if you were having an utterly different conversation about the incredibly interesting world of nocebos, or harmful placebos?

FAPer.

What all these people have in common is that when they see a discussion going on about a particular topic, they seem to think to themselves “I know an argument about that topic!” and then proceed to give it, whether or not it’s appropriate or relevant. FAPers see making their argument as so important that it doesn’t matter whether it adds to the discussion or not.

It’s often with good intentions. I’m sure that the Christian in the first example really wants to save my soul, even at the cost of my conversation, which he’s just irritatingly derailed. I see feminists on the internet all the time giving Feminism 101 lectures in cases where it wasn’t appropriate, or where it would have been better to address more specific or nuanced points. Of course they want to convince others of their entirely valid points, and for good reason, too. It just may not have been the occasion.

In fact, we’re probably all guilty of FAPing at some time or another, because we thought we had a point that was too important not to say, even if it was only tangentially related to the argument at hand. But even when it comes out of good intentions, FAPing is a bad habit.

Why FAPing is Bad

1. It is selfish. It makes the discussion entirely about the argument the FAPer wants to make instead of what has organically come out of the group up to that point.

2.  It confusingly and irritatingly violates the Gricean Maxim of Relevance, in which we all tacitly agree to only add to conversation with relevant things.

3. It’s really bad and unproductive arguing. FAPers fail to listen to what other people are saying, and as a result, don’t address any of their arguments. People tend not to get convinced that way. FAPing also often demands an all-or-nothing approach, where the opponent must agree immediately or be subject to a repeat of the fixed and unchanging argument.

4. FAPing is way less interesting than thinking about how to address the specifics of a particular argument. FAPing may as well be just copy pasted from a google doc, or a playing of a voice recorder. As a result, FAPers tend not to learn new things from arguments, since they’ll say the same thing no matter what.

4.b. I think FAPing can add to burnout, since FAPers are guaranteed to have the same arguments over and over again, since they’re making the same arguments over and over again. People who are responding to the particulars of the argument they’re in are probably going to be less frustrated with the miserable and unproductive monotony of never having a novel argument.

How to Fix It

If you notice yourself making the same arguments over and over, or being accused of saying things irrelevant to the argument, try to stop yourself. Even if you think what you have to say is really important, if you find yourself thinking of how to shoehorn your point in, rather than thinking about to respond to what’s going on, take a step back. You might be FAPing. How to stop yourself? Think about what’s going on in this argument, not all the similar ones you’ve seen and been in, even if you know exactly where the argument is going. Try to respond to the argument this person is making, not all the ones it sounds like. I promise it’s more interesting that way.

If you notice others FAPing, ask them (charitably, kindly) to respond to the arguments that you or others have made that they haven’t responded to. Make sure to ask people on “your side” as well! Ask them what their opinion on the particular issues at hand are, and ask them to stay on topic. If they continue not to, delete!

So let us go forth, and FAP no more!

————————————————————————————————————

For another random animal-related piece of rationality advice, check out Julia Galef’s video about Sphexing.