Religion Causing Offence

fool_hath_said_posterI came across an offensive advertisement on my way to work recently. It was put there by the Trinitarian Bible Society. I’ve seen a variety of other Bible verses in their adverts, but the one pictured to the right caught my eye.

“The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.”

That’s not an argument for the existence of a god. It’s not even a statement of belief. It’s an insult. An ad hominem attack – something intended to sully an opponent’s character and by association, their opinions. That is, unless this is intended as an isolated story about one particular fool with no wider context. In which case it’s hard to see why the Trinitarians are so keen to let hapless commuters know about it. As it is, the idea seems to be to tell passers by that “Atheists are fools and well, you’re not a fool, are you?”. Trying to convince people to agree with you by insulting those who disagree is only slightly better than telling them they’ll suffer eternal torment for disagreeing.

Faced with this I considered writing a letter of complaint to the advertising company. I can imagine the outrage if someone put up an advert with the equivalent slogan, “The idiot has told himself there is a god”. Thinking about it later it I realised I was overreacting. I don’t have a right not to be offended. No one does. No one has the right to veto something simply because they find it offensive. For one thing what people find offensive is subjective, so to outlaw the causing of offence would be something of a blank cheque.

The parallels with the reactions to recent atheist advertising are predictably the next section of this post. The bus adverts paid for by public donations to the Atheist Campaign are now on the streets of the UK. As the amount raised was in excess of what was expected, a series of “tube card” adverts, like the one below, are also being shown on the London Underground.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently offensive about the statement on the card shown nor the other freethinker quotes that were used. However as I agree with the sentiments in this case it’s hard for me to judge whether they would offend people. According to Ariane Sherine, who came up with the idea, the email response she’s received has been almost all positive. With the exception of a few extreme examples, I think most religious people in the UK would support atheists’ right to free speech even if they find it offensive. Some have even said that they welcome the debate.

So I’m not going to follow the great British tradition of writing a stiff letter (presumably on cardboard?) to complain about being called a fool.

Free speech is there to protect offensive speech and controversial ideas, as Greta Christina wrote when she was offended recently:

“What Buckley failed to realize is something blindingly obvious, something many, many people have said before me: We don’t need the First Amendment to protect the radical assertion that puppies are cute and apple pie is delicious. We don’t need the First Amendment to protect popular speech. We need the First Amendment to protect unpopular speech.”

It doesn’t matter how offensive the eye of the beholder finds someone else’s opinion. If some belief system’s representatives put up adverts saying “All those who disagree are hopelessly stupid and criminally insane” they should still be allowed. I don’t think it would help their cause much, however. There are plenty of good reasons not to offend people when you communicate – it can backfire and create hostility and turn the offender into the bad guy – and I’m certainly not convinced by a religious group who thinks that one of their best arguments is to call atheists fools. I think it’s pathetic, but I support their right to say it.

Tolerate the believer not the belief

Ask any blogging atheist or freethinker and you’ll probably find they’ve done a post or two on tolerance. Well here’s mine.

It’s not uncommon for atheists to be told they shouldn’t criticize others people’s beliefs, because it’s rude or intolerant. Other bloggers have explained in detail why it’s important to do so and why it’s not rude to disagree. The consensus seems to be that being universally tolerant of other people’s beliefs allows a free-pass for bad ideas which can lead to some crazy or dangerous behaviour.

But what constitutes tolerance? Lynet at Elliptica describes what seems to me like a reasonable idea of tolerance:

Tolerance does not imply the lack of an opinion, it merely implies allowing others to disagree. I will, however, continue to argue for my own position. And I still think you’re wrong.

When I do get into debates on beliefs, I try to avoid being insulting or antagonistic. This isn’t something I always get right; it’s something I aspire to.  I know from experience that it’s all too easy to mock or humorously misrepresent someone’s beliefs in the heat of the moment, especially when the debate is face to face.

However, I genuinely don’t want to cause offence. The people I chat with about religion are generally nice decent people and I wouldn’t like to see them upset if I can help it.

I know some atheists say we shouldn’t worry about upsetting people. In some situations I can understand that attitude. For example, when “You’re so intolerant” is being used to shut down an important political issue rather than accept the more rational argument. Even more so if you’re being asked to tolerate a belief that is itself hateful or intolerant.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to get people to listen to your point of view, maybe change their mind, then I think causing offence will hinder your efforts. If you say or even imply that someone is stupid or crazy for believing what they do, you can expect anger and resentment, not carefully considered responses. It turns from a conversation into a confrontation – one in which backing down is seen as weak and shameful rather than open-minded.

So there’s a fine line to tread. We shouldn’t play the sycophant and pretend to agree so as not to hurt people’s feelings; but we’d be ill-advised to resort to condescending mockery or insults simply because we disagree.

The trouble is that many believers feel their beliefs are an intrinsic part of their identity. However politely it is phrased, the disagreement may still be interpreted as an insult. This is mostly the believer’s problem, but we should nevertheless bear it in mind when debating with them.

I commented recently on Kelly Gorski’s post ‘And They Call It “Tolerance”‘ to suggest that separating the belief from the believer is important. (Excuse the gratuitous self-quote).

Maybe we should tolerate/respect the believer, but not their beliefs. This distinction may be obvious to us; I think we should make it obvious to those whose beliefs we criticise.

After some searching I discovered that a similar idea was suggested by Mahatma Ghandi, and not Jesus as some Christians have apparently claimed:

Hate the sin, love the sinner.

My version is, “Tolerate the believer, not the belief”. I think that’s a good lesson for me both in the way I think about and treat believers.

As much as possible we should separate the believer from the belief. Smart people often believe stupid things. Most of us probably have some false beliefs, but that doesn’t make us idiots. It just means we’re mistaken in that case.

Now I need to work out how to make the difference clear to people without upsetting them…