Disagreement Does Not Equal Intolerance

People sometimes ask me, “why are you so vocal (aka militant) about your atheism? Why do you criticize religion? Why are you intolerant? You’ll never change anyone’s mind.”

My response to that final statement, which informs my answers to the other questions, is “how do you know?” The fact is people do change their minds all the time. Sometimes, less often than I would hope, but it does happen.

However, changing minds about religion is not my primary motivator when I talk about my worldview on this blog and other forums, or social media, and in real life. I have many reasons, but mostly I simply want to be true to myself, be authentic.  Come out from the shadows.  And find like-minded individuals to commiserate with.  Doing so means adhering to a principal I believe in:

I do not believe any idea – religious or secular – should be immune from criticism.

All ideas should be subjected to challenging questions, and be exposed when they make no sense. I strongly believe that we cannot make good decisions as humans when we do not know, or lie to ourselves about, the facts of the natural world.  If in expressing my worldviews which are spawned from this principal I also convince someone to question their supernatural beliefs or even abandon their faith, I will see that as a side benefit victory. Point in fact, I would love if there were no more faith-based religion anywhere.  I think magical thinking holds us back as a species.  It is born from our evolved need for patterns, storytelling, and making sense of the world.

Not all magical thinking is equal. Some ideas are worse than others, and can lead to more harm than those more benign. It is important to note that generally speaking I do not think all, or even most, religious people are bad, stupid, or harmful to society. I once believed in a supernatural god wholeheartedly, and I’m pretty certain my mental capabilities are the same now as they were then.  But religion does breed a kind of dogmatic blindness to critical thinking, and makes it too easy for otherwise good people to behave in very immoral ways. Whenever you establish a-priori views for how the world must be, you throw out the ability to see clearly what actually is because you’re always trying to conform reality to that view. That is the kind of thinking that can (but doesn’t always) lead to other very scary ways of thinking, which in turn can lead to some very destructive and devastating behaviors, even by otherwise good people.

Holy Flying Spaghetti Monster, It’s the End of the World As We Know It!

Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster http://www.venganza.org/

Back to the statement that I will never change anyone’s mind, I would only say that I am the product of one such mind-changing.  And I know prominent atheist thinkers like the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet (aka The Four Horsemen), among many others, have most certainly changed people’s minds. Minds are changed all the time. Sometimes people just need the tools and knowledge to make the choice to leap from the precipice.

And sometimes they need to be pushed.

I hope this blog and other places I discuss my worldview will push a few people off the cliff, or at least lead them to the edge to peer over. If you are strong in your faith, and unable or unwilling to let it go, then this blog – at least when it’s focused on atheism – probably doesn’t have much to offer you.  And that is fine.  But for those nearing the leap… I want you to know there are others out there like you, and you have a friend in me.

In the process of criticizing beliefs that have traditionally been somewhat protected under the guise of religious tolerance, people will inevitably feel offended. It is not my goal to offend people, but it is a byproduct I cannot control without completely stopping any discussion of who I am, and the things in life that I believe are important – vitally important.  Recently I have been told I am intolerant, and even a bully. I find this astonishing. I do not doubt that there are many atheists and skeptics out there who have no qualms about viciously attacking believers (and other atheists) at any cost. I have often debated with them and even defended Christians and other believers. When I was a fledgling atheist, I was even attacked in forums I visited seeking like minds. It was shocking to me. But I came to understand that the only thing that truly binds atheists together is their lack of belief in supernatural gods. There is no unified “doctrine” or moral code. It’s merely the default way of viewing the natural world. It’s a tired metaphor, but effective: Atheism is a belief system in the way that not collecting stamps is a hobby. Nobody runs around telling people they are a-stamp collectors. Yet, because of the way human minds are wired and the way we’ve evolved, magical thinking won out and placed the burden of proof on the default instead of the other way around (the way science works).

Watery Tarts and their Swords…

As a former Christian myself, I understand why believers believe. And if I am considered to be intolerant and mean, I can’t even imagine the word believers use to describe some of the more direct and combative atheists out there. But I want to clarify one thing…

For me, tolerance has nothing to do with freedom from criticism.

“You can’t expect to wield supreme power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!”

I am a skeptic at heart more than I am an atheist. Being a skeptic (not to be confused with cynic) means evaluating ideas using reason, logic, critical thinking… basically the foundations of the scientific method. Skeptics constantly challenge the status quo, and dogma. They call a spade a spade. They invite debate and discussion. They question everything, probably annoyingly so. But this is not the same thing as personally attacking an individual believer. If you call me ignorant, but do not explain what is ignorant about what I say, you are personally attacking me, or using an ad hominem attack. That is something I am strongly against. But if I call what you believe silly, that is a criticism of an idea, not you. Ideally, I’d follow that criticism up with why I think it’s a silly belief as well. Tolerance is being able to have provocative discussions with those we disagree, and even debate with gloves off regarding the merits of an idea without resorting to personal insults, or violence. In the words of the brilliant skeptic and scientist Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” That is an axiom I try to live by.

Will I make mistakes? Will I offend inadvertently? Will I occasionally even overstep my own goals and personally attack someone? Much to my chagrin, the answer to all three is most likely yes. That will never be my intention, but it is bound to happen when I am choosing to engage people in debate of such a volatile and emotionally charged topic as religion. I hope you will forgive me when I cross the line. I will forgive you in the same spirit. But we must all try to push back our natural inclination to immediately take offense when someone pushes the boundaries of our personal belief systems and worldviews. We must ask ourselves, is what that person said a criticism of me, or is it a criticism of an idea I find important? If it’s the latter, it is my hope that we engage in thoughtful discussion, instead of throwing barbs (either to ourselves or publicly), and instead of burying our heads in the sand.

There is nothing to be gained as a species by remaining in a criticism-proof Utopian bubble of belief coated in religious tolerance.

I Can’t Read Your Mind, and You Can’t Read Mine

I have also been called closed-minded, I think because I state things with confidence and the assuredness of that moment. This astonishes me even more than being called intolerant, partly because I am the least confident person you’ll probably know, and partly because the facts belie that conclusion. I can understand how in the heat of a discussion our emotions kick in, and we feel like an attack on our beliefs is an attack on our character. Its a knee jerk reaction that can be hard to control.  But simply by exuding confidence, or by rejecting “new” evidence provided to me during a debate (often this is evidence I’ve already considered and moved past), I apparently appear unwilling to change my mind. Nonsense!

First of all, few people ever change their mind in the middle of a debate. Yourself included if you’re honest.

Second, a willingness to hear evidence or argument does not automatically lead to the adoption of evidence. That’s not how critical thinking works, otherwise with each new idea, we’d constantly change our beliefs.

And third, a lack of willingness to hear the same evidence that has already been considered and rejected is simply a way to save life’s precious ever waning time!

Essentially, people confuse my refusal to agree with them in that moment with an unwillingness to listen to new ideas and ponder. We all absorb new information over time. In some cases, it will lead us to a change of mind. In others, the new information will not make the cut. I can assure you, I hear what you say. I think about what you say (if I haven’t already, and sometimes if I have), sometimes for a very, very long time. Probably to an unhealthy level.  But I will not automatically agree with you any more than you will automatically agree with me. If you feel I am truly closed-minded, how can you explain my total 180 in my world view, from strong believer, to atheist, based entirely on new evidence, critical analysis, and consideration of various philosophies?

I can only respond to that critique as it relates to the subject of god or no god by saying this: I am very willing to believe in god in the event there is sufficient (or any) evidence to do so.  Can you say the same for your willingness to abandon your faith?  In short, my question for you is (if you are a believer), what will it take for you to reject god? I have an answer to that question.  Do you?

Now ask yourself who is closed minded?

Imagine No Religion Too

So, yes, full disclosure, it is my goal that one day, faith-based religion ceases to exist. I don’t expect this to happen in my lifetime, but I have decided to make it a personal mission to be part of that dream. This blog is one way I try to contribute. So is sharing my ideas on social media. I don’t believe in forcing anyone to believe anything, but I do believe in the power of words. I have been inspired by amazing writers and speakers, and while I can’t remotely compare myself to the powerhouses of the “new atheist” movement, I can do the best I can with what I have. Ideas matter. Things we believe matter. A common strain in polite society is “I don’t care what you believe, just don’t push your beliefs on me.” If you know me, I doubt you’d be able to think of a time when I’ve ever said anything like that. Usually what people mean is they don’t want to hear a different opinion, or a view that challenges their own. But I’m the girl that sits and listens to the street preacher, or takes their pamphlets to read on the bus,

Monster Shouter (Stephen King’s The Stand)

or invites the Jehovah’s Witness in to have a chat. As long as the discussion is civil, calm, and focused on the topic being debated, I really do want to talk and learn about ideas other than my own, even though sometimes those ideas can even make me uncomfortable. But I would never expect you to adopt my viewpoint, or respect my beliefs simply because I have them. You should adopt my beliefs if I persuade you with evidence and reason. You should be tolerant of my existence, and respect my freedom to think differently from you, but I will never ask you to respect my actual ideas unless they deserve that respect on their own merits. I expect you to expect nothing less of me.




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  • Bret Shroyer

    I can follow your logic, and respect your position, but I find one of your positions baffling and/or contradictory: “So, yes, full disclosure, it is my goal that one day, faith-based religion ceases to exist.”

    Who would benefit from this? At what cost?

    It’s easy to understand the motives of the evangelical believer; she stands to gain nothing herself, but rather desires to bring salvation/nirvana/heaven to her audience. She’s willing to risk appearing the fool, or offending others, because she believes the benefit to her audience far outweighs the cost to herself.

    What motivates the evangelical athiest? Should I interpret that original quote differently than if you’d said, “It is my goal that one day, professional sports fanatics ceases to exist.”?

    • Hi Bret! Welcome to the blog! The short response to your question (because I’m thumb typing) is I believe overall more harm is caused by believing in untruths (which is what I see religion as) than good. it is the kind of dogma that leads to the inquisition and 9/11. Do you need religion to be bad? of course not. But I think religion can lead to good people doing bad things for no other reason than religion. religion shapes politics and policy and how people treat each other. no one lives in a bubble so I’d rather we all base our choices on reality rather than myth as a starting point. again that is the phone typing readers digest version.

      • Bret Shroyer

        That explains it well. I’m afraid I can’t respect your objective. The existence of dangerous religions is not sufficient to justify destruction of all religions. Billions find peace and hope in their daily lives through their faith — it would be unconscionable to deny them this because of the evil actions taken by others in the name of religion.

        “does she not receive joy from her activities to convert others?” — That’s right to the heart of the point. Many religions have at their heart a call to evangelize: “Go tell it on the mountain!” The mandate is justified to by emphasizing the rewards awaiting the converts. It’s a tidy mechanic that keeps the numbers up.

        Evangelistic atheism just sounds contradictory to me, in the same way that “formal anarchy” or “godless zealot.” I’m trying to understand, so I’ll keep reading.

        • Likewise I guess. If it was possible for peaceful religious people to live in a bubble where their religious positions never impacted others, I would agree with you, but that is simply not possible.

          I would never deny people their right to practice their religion. I would fight for your right to practice your faith all the live long day so long as you’re peaceful and don’t infringe on the rights of others, but I will try to do what I can with words and education in pursuit of that goal (to end faith based religion).

          For me, its less important that people adopt atheism than that they adopt skepticism and do not rely on god for their morality. We have evolved as social primates to have morality and god is not required for us to be good people.

          I think Greta Christina says it better than I can though: http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2007/10/atheists-and-an.html

          I’m not as angry as she is, or remotely as devoted an evangelist. So, no I’m not so much hoping for all people to become atheists as I am hoping for better reasons for morality than god, namely reducing suffering of conscious creatures as much as possible, beginning first and foremost with humans. We don’t need religion to be good or do good things. There are better reasons to be moral. That is what I am advocating most.

          As Sam Harris has said: “What I’m asking you to entertain is that there is nothing we need to believe on insufficient evidence in order to have deeply ethical and spiritual lives.”

    • Also.. does our hypothetical religious evangelist really gain nothing? her motives are purely selfish? does she not receive joy from her activities to convert others? as a former believer I can only say I know those things gave me great joy despite any ridicule I faced.

      • Typo… Meant are her “motives purely unselfish?”

  • Chris Doffing

    The title of your blog was very applicable to my feeling about the Gay Marriage debate. Just because I was against changing marriage to include people of the same sex did not mean I was intolerant of homosexual persons or a bigot. This was the standard line I was getting on social media.
    It seems we have lost the ability to discuss and debate in this country without getting red faced and accusing people of hate speech or calling them bigots. There exists today a tremendous lack of humility and respect towards people that disagree with each other, that’s why I’ve always enjoyed our conversations even when we disagree. There is a genuine respect and search for truth happening.

    • I can see where you’re coming from, and you and I have discussed this issue in the past, but my main point with the title is more that disagreement is not what makes intolerance in and of itself. However, the substance of an argument, can be an intolerant position, or a position that leads to intolerance. There’s really no way around that.

      I’m not commenting on the specific comment you cite, as I think there are previous blog posts I’ve written that address my thoughts on the topic. Intolerance isn’t always a bad thing. I don’t tolerate murderers or pedophiles, and I think most people would agree with me. There are some things worth getting red-faced over. But in and of itself, disagreement is not intolerance. Intolerance is intolerance. When I prevent you from speaking, or I physically infringe on you, to me that is what is intolerant. It may be rooted in disagreement, but not disagreement itself.

      I’ll stop now to refrain from being perceived as intolerant. 🙂

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