Sensibilities nonsense in Atheist Approach

Ruffled feathers and squawking now seem to be the name of the game when Karla McLaren wrote a guest blog about being less polemic. She was surprised by the vile response.

I think she missed what she was saying effectively was be nice children (see PZ Meyers response here)

Her first bit is about turning off the audience you try to convince by being polemical:

“It’s also not something you can use in a relationship or a conversation, and it’s not something you can build a movement upon, because the intensity of emotion in a polemic is too extreme for most of us to manage deftly. Your polemical rage, if you try to use it in a conversation, can make you look scary and mad-intolerant. Your polemical despair, if you try to use it to convert your religious friends, can make you seem constitutionally incapable of seeing the bright side of life (or the importance of religion for people who may have nothing else). And your polemical terror, if you try to blog about it, can make you look like a wild-eyed doomsday prophet (who is nearly always wrong).”

Missing the point – I’m not trying to convert you from theism to atheism. I’m trying to convince you that secularism protects your civil rights and mine best, allowing freedom of conscience and infidels to be citizens. That your god does not have a veto on the Rights of Humanity without causing injury to the public good. If you read her guest blog answering her critics it suggests secularism is a replacement to religion. A faux pas unforgivable of someone claiming to be in any atheist movement.

“For me as an agnostic atheist, the future of the movement is an eventual acceptance of secularism as a moral, ethical, and viable alternative (not necessarily a replacement; I’m a realist) to religion, to faith communities, and to faith-based community service and social justice initiatives.”

In the original blog she then accuses the polemical of coming from an extremist view:

“But even if you are at the top of your game, your polemic can easily backfire. Here’s why: the form requires that you come out swinging from an extremist position, and that you choose only those examples and philosophies that support your ideas, while dismissing or ridiculing the examples and philosophies that don’t.”

That is confusing the polemic form with the practises of bloggers angry looking to trade words. The polemic is a contrarian view (not extremist) that needs no straw men to set alight – it burns with the prose and rational appeal to reason which at it’s best convinces people to take account. Or even to change their mind. Atheism is controversial because the majority believe in the supernatural or will not discount it completely. That makes our arguments polemical – her issue is the style employed which is slightly different.

She suggests that accommodating the sensibilities of the religious will ultimately benefit the human rights issues which atheists care about. Polemics rather hurt that cause:

“Polemics exist because they are necessary weapons in specific instances, especially when they’re aimed at ideologies or institutions that are hidebound and seemingly untouchable. But healthy and lasting social change can’t be built on polemics alone – and you shouldn’t use polemics within a movement if you want it to survive. Polemics are shrapnel bombs lobbed over high castle walls, and they don’t merely break down doors; they also take out the castle walls, fill the moat with debris, and collaterally kill whatever unfortunate birds happened to be flying over the castle that day. Polemics may destroy old ideologies, but they can’t create a new and sustainable movement.

If atheism (old, new, and just-discovered) is to become a sustainable and welcoming minority rights movement (or even just a nice place to hang out), then it requires community-builders, dissent voices, ambassadors, comedians, argument that is intentionally non-polemical, and an eventual buy-in from the majority. That necessary evolution is made more difficult if secondary and tertiary New Atheists maintain their interest in continual polemical intolerance, in intractable polarization, and in imagining that any critique of their approach requires the donning of full combat armor.”

This misses what Sam Harris said at the AAI 2007 Conference – that we do not need to attack religion when talking about stem cell research, abortion or sex education. We can let the religious use god and get tangled up in something that does not use medicine, science, public health as the basis of the discussion.

The polemic has a place, and to reach out to people it usually helps not to lash out at the time you hold out your hand. Yet when writing a blog it is not usually about mending bridges but having your say, your take on the situation, expressing how you feel. Karla misses something about human nature: no one likes being told how to communicate what they feel. Hence some very hurtful comments that headed her way. Not my style but if you try to heard cats expect hissing and claws.

Karla’s suggestion of using dialectics seems to be confused with the concept of reflective equilibrium (which Rawls derived from Kant so from same family tree as dialectics). The former is a means by which we may try by debate to come to the truth. Reflective equilibrium is how we may in the course of a discussion agree on certain fundamentals.

We do not need the new atheist movement to change it’s ways. What would be more useful is that we find how to make the case for the secular society. Karla should try and blog about how to move on to winning that argument. Assuming that she realises that secularism and atheism are not the same thing.


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