Russell Blackford has a post here in which he gets my views on metaphysics completely right in the first 2 paragraphs, and then my views on freedom of speech and the criticism of religion completely wrong for the next 9 paragraphs. I find the whole thing beyond baffling, but apparently it makes some kind of strange sense to people like Dr. Coyne. Let’s assume–charitably–that this is because I have not adequately explained myself on this matter. I guess, then, that I had better say more.
Let’s start with my views about speech and the First Amendment:
Nobody should shut up, ever. (Well, there is the whole fire in a crowded theater thing, but you know what I mean.)
The intellectual case for atheism should be made publicly and often.
The intellectual case for the incompatibility of science and religion–although incorrect–should nevertheless also be made publicly and often.
I believe these things because I’m a civil libertarian, a strong supporter of free speech and getting arguments out there. Also, being an atheist, I want people to know why I think in the way I do, and so of course I believe strongly in the dissemination of atheist ideas.
As for incompatibilism: I don’t think they’re correct, but I strongly support folks’ ability to express incompatibilist ideas (like Sean Carroll recently did). And I have a right to criticize them and articulate compatibilist ideas (as I recently did in this post).
So far so good?
Beyond these core points about freedom of speech, I also have various views about how my fellow atheists ought to go about making their arguments in order to render them as persuasive and effective as possible. None of this advice contradicts any of the positions above. Indeed, all the advice is premised on the existence of a safe, durable, free marketplace of ideas. I am saying to atheists, “given that you are going to be out there saying something, here are some thoughts about how you might want to say it.”
Let me also add, although I shouldn’t have to, that I do not have the power to censor any atheists, nor would I use such powers of censorship if I did possess them. It pains me to have to make this point, as I find it mindboggling that anyone could confuse giving people advice about how to be persuasive and effective with censorship. But nevertheless, I will reiterate it.
So hopefully everything is now a bit clearer. In a free marketplace of ideas, I am free to give advice, and atheists are at all times free to reject my advice, and go on saying whatever they wish.
But suppose that some of them wish to listen to me? Well, here are some of things I would advise strategically:
The intellectual case for atheism should be made with tact and civility. The best practitioner of this approach that I’ve read is Carl Sagan. More on this in Unscientific America.
A rule of thumb when criticizing religion: Couch your argument in such a way that it might actually persuade a believer. On such a delicate matter, where core matters of belief and identity are at stake, that means tone is as important as content. That means fostering dialogue, never insulting, never denouncing. Imagine this is a person you had to sit across the dinner table with for 2 hours. How would you behave?
Prominent atheists who want religion to be criticized effectively should set an example for their followers when it comes to tact and civility.
There are also various strategic ramifications of all this in terms of how societies and organizations promoting science ought to position themselves. This gets into the whole battle over what NCSE ought to be doing, where I think the group is doing a great job, and Coyne and others want it to change its policy on science and religion.
Finally, there is one last point which seems to be creating a lot of confusion. It involves this whole idea of “criticizing” religion. People like Blackford are constantly saying that it’s important to “criticize” religion, because religious ideas are very influential and also very pernicious.
While I agree with this in theory, I am also suspicious of the line of reasoning as many atheists seem to want to apply it. I guess I think a lot of them seem to hold what I consider to be basically naive views about the effectiveness of such “criticism.”
Everyone has a right to criticize anything and everything, of course. You can press the “fire” button as much as you please, and blast as many religious ideas as come into your scopes. But whether any of it makes much of a difference, I’m in very much doubt. And whether it backfires–well, this I very much suspect.
Let me elaborate:
Many atheists appear to cling to the naive Enlightenment-era notion that if we only “criticize” an erroneous idea publicly, somehow those holding the idea will give it up, vanquish it from their minds, and convert to “reason.” But this is not the way human minds work or the way the modern media works.
Similarly, many atheists seem to think that stridency of criticism correlates with effectiveness of criticism in changing minds. This is similarly out of whack with the way the human mind, politics, and the media work.
These last two points are ALSO not an argument for censorship, but rather a call for getting a clue about how public debates actually play out today, especially on extremely sensitive and personal topics like religion.
So that’s basically what I think. Any questions?