Being Polite and Being Right

By Sean Carroll | January 4, 2010 9:04 am

It’s been simultaneously amusing and horrifying to read through the comments on my post about the misguided atheist holiday display in Illinois. This is still the Internet after all, and “reading comprehension” is not a highly valued skill, even among subsamples self-selected for their logic and reasoning abilities.

In brief: thinking that atheists shouldn’t be needlessly obnoxious doesn’t make me a “faithiest” or an “accommodationist” or someone without the courage of my convictions. Those would be hard charges to support against someone who wrote this or this or this or this. I just think it’s possible to have convictions without being a jerk about them. “I disagree with you” and “You are a contemptible idiot” are not logically equivalent.

Phil just pointed to a good post by Steve Cumo about precisely the same issue, with “atheism” replaced by “skepticism.” A lot of skeptics/atheists are truly excited and passionate about their worldviews, and that’s unquestionably a good thing. But it can turn into a bad thing if we allow that passion to manifest itself as contempt for everyone who disagrees with us. (For certain worthy targets, sure.) There’s certainly a place for telling jokes, or calling a crackpot a crackpot; being too afraid of stepping on people’s toes is just as bad as stomping on feet for the sheer joy of it. But there’s also a place for letting things slide, living to dispute another day.

We atheists/skeptics have a huge advantage when it comes to reasonable, evidence-based argumentation: we’re right. (Provisionally, with appropriate humble caveats about those aspects of the natural world we don’t yet understand.) We don’t need to stoop to insults to win debates; reality is on our side. And there are many people out there who are willing to listen to logic and evidence, when presented reasonably and in good faith. We should always presume that people who disagree with us are amenable to reasonable discussion, until proven otherwise. (Cf. the Grid of Disputation. See also Dr. Free-Ride.)

That’s very different than “accommodationism,” which holds that science and religion aren’t really in conflict. The problem with accommodationism isn’t that its adherents aren’t sufficiently macho or strident; it’s that they’re wrong. And when respected organizations like the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, or the American Association for the Advancement of Science go on record as claiming that science and religion are completely compatible, as if they were speaking for scientists, that’s unconscionable and should be stopped. They don’t have to go on at great length about how a scientific worldview undermines religious belief, even if it’s true; they can just choose not to say anything at all about religion. That’s not their job.

It’s also wrong to fetishize politeness for its own sake. Some people manage to forfeit the right to be taken seriously or treated politely. But that shouldn’t be the default position. And being polite doesn’t make you more likely to be correct, or vice-versa. And — to keep piling on the caveats — being “polite” doesn’t mean “keeping quiet,” at least as a general principle. We all know people who will resort to a cowardly tactic of claiming to be “offended” when you say something perfectly reasonable with which they happen to disagree. There’s no reason to give into that; but the solution is not to valorize obnoxiousness for its own sake.

The irony is that the pro-obnoxious crowd (obnoxionists?) is ultimately making the same mistake as the accommodationist crowd. Namely: blurring the lines between the truth of a claim and the manner in which the claim is presented. Accommodationists slide from “we can work together, in a spirit of mutual respect, with religious people on issues about which we agree” to “we should pretend that science and religion are compatible.” But obnoxionists tend to slide from “we disagree with those people” to “we should treat those people with contempt.” Neither move is really logically supportable.

A lot of the pro-obnoxiousness sentiment stems from a feeling that atheism is a disrespected minority viewpoint in our culture, and I have some sympathy with that. Atheists should never be ashamed of their beliefs, or afraid to support them vigorously. And — let’s be honest — there’s a certain amount of pleasure to be found in being part of a group where everyone sits around congratulating each other on their superior intellect and reasoning abilities, while deriding their opponents with terms like “superstition” and “brain damage” and “child abuse.” But these are temptations to be avoided, not badges of honor.

Within the self-reinforcing culture of vocal non-believers, it’s gotten to the point where saying that someone is “nice” has become an insult. Let me hereby stake out a brave, contrarian position: in favor of being nice. I think that folks in the reality-based community should be the paragons of reasonableness and even niceness, while not yielding an inch on the correctness of their views. We should be the good guys. We are in possession of some incredible truths about this amazing universe in which we live, and we should be promoting positive messages about the liberating aspects of a life in which human beings are responsible for creating justice and beauty, rather than having them handed to us by supernatural overseers. Remarkably, I think it’s possible to be positive and nice (when appropriate) and say true things at the same time. But maybe that’s just my crazy utopian streak.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Religion

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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