On Prosthelytizing, or Why I am an Accomodationist

Posted on June 14, 2011

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My last post, in which I wrote a letter to Richard Dawkins which may have been a bit too flattering, has drawn some scorn my way from a few of my readers. After a few well-deserved rebukes, I think it’s necessary to point out that Richard Dawkins is a bit of a tool. I don’t hate everything about him. He’s written some great books, his popular biology is lucid and engaging and he’s kind of useful as an atheist bulldog. On the other hand, he’s unnecessarily aggressive against the vast majority of believers who just want to be left alone to worship in peace. Dawkins is not alone in this. PZ Meyers provoked the faithful by desecrating a communion wafer, a bible and a Koran. Christopher Hitchens insists that when he gave his book the sensational subtitle of “How religion poisons everything”, he meant it literally. Sam Harris attempts to dismiss an entire discipline of philosophy in his most recent work of scientism. It seems that nearly every prominent atheist figure has a reputation as a bit of an antisocial asshole.

This general trend towards dickery among atheists is the result of a subtle philosophical error. Obnoxious atheists tend to justify their behaviour by conflating epistemic values with ethical values. To put that in non-philosophy nerd speak, they fallaciously equate being good with being right. This is well illustrated by this quote from Blag Hag, another aggressive atheist blogger:

“Regardless if your religion goes out of its way to oppress others, or just has private naked kissing rituals, I’m still going to point out how wrong it is. Why? Because the search for truth is important to me, and there are too many beautiful, wonderful real things in this world to be wasting our time on pointless rituals and optimistic daydreaming. It’s intellectually insulting to believe in something just for community, or wonderment, or tradition, or answers about the afterlife – when it’s a fucking fairy tale.”
I respect that the search for truth is important to Blag Hag. It happens to be quite important to me as well. Furthermore, I think I mostly agree with her as to what the truth actually is. I trust science and believe there to be no evidence for any meaningful supernatural presence in our world. Like Blag Hag, I believe in evolution and the big bang and our total lack of souls. The difference is that I am more comfortable than she is with those who have different metaphysical convictions than me. Another person’s beliefs cannot be intellectually insulting to me unless they try to impose the normative content of those beliefs on me. While I would agree that it is not a useful way of understanding the world, I nevertheless have no problem with other peoples’ religious faith because I understand that it can be an enormous source of social grounding, psychological comfort, and moral instruction for many people. So long as it brings good into some peoples’ lives, it is none of my business to go about trying to eradicate religion because I don’t agree with its factual content. Dawkins, Hitchens, Myers, McCreight, and Harris fail to separate the goodness from correctness.
That’s all well and good, but the whole thing seems a bit patronizing, doesn’t it? Saying that I understand that religious believers are wrong but will rest comfortably in my agnostic superiority is at least a little bit of the same kind of obnoxiousness that is displayed by the more aggressive atheists. True respect of a person’s beliefs is displayed by a willingness to engage with them. Furthermore, I do believe that there are some more extreme forms of religion which do cause real harm to their adherents. So I can’t entirely abandon prosthelytizing. This point is well illustrated by Penn Jillette’s heartwarming account of when a very kind man tried to convert him to Christianity:
He has a point. If you sincerely believe that somebody would be better off with a different set of beliefs about the world, then you are doing that person a severe disservice by not trying to change their mind. The question is, how can this be accomplished without being an asshole atheist (or asshole agnostic, in my case). This is tough, and since it’s a question of etiquette, it’s entirely subjective. I can only tell you how I go about it. I will only prosthelytize if I am prosthelyzed to first. If somebody is willing to open a conversation about faith, ethics and metaphysics, then I will respect their attempt to save my soul by launching my own attempt to free them from having to start akward conversations to save peoples’ souls. To my mind, an honest engagement with any conversion attempt is necessary to respect a faith in which you do not believe. But to actively seek out confrontations with believers, whether on the internet or in the real world, is kind of douchey.
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