You've probably heard what is sometimes referred to as Republican's 11th commandment (i.e., a Republican should not speak ill of a fellow Republican). I've seen a similar sentiment here in the atheist movement. We should not waste valuable time and resources criticizing one another and should instead direct our criticism at the religious. I don't buy it. Criticism, especially when it is genuinely constructive, can be an extremely valuable commodity that we should welcome. We learn from it, we improve as a result of it, and we would likely make far more serious mistakes without it.
Constructive criticism is criticism intended to help the recipient. A great example of constructive criticism is when my readers call my attention to typos in my posts. I am grateful for this because it helps me express myself more effectively. Another example is when readers disagree with something I've said and take the time to explain why. I learn a great deal from this, and it helps to shape my thinking on the subject.
Unfortunately, not all criticism is constructive. Much of it is not designed to be helpful at all. Every time I post something that is not 100% focused on atheism, I will receive a comment on Facebook saying, "What the hell does this have to do with atheism?"
Dishing it Out
It is far easier to criticize someone's ideas than it is to generate one's own ideas. Criticism is often viewed as an easy way out of thinking for oneself. But it can be valuable when it is constructive, and I disagree with those who suggest that atheists should not criticize one another. Constructive criticism is not an attack on someone's ideas.
Constructive criticism can be challenging, even when it comes from a place of wanting to help the recipient. One must realize that the recipient may not always perceive what you intended to be constructive as constructive. While you do not have control over how someone else is going to react, you can pick your words carefully to reduce the chances that they will take offense.
One's ability to accept constructive criticism is a mark of maturity. It suggests that one is comfortable enough in one's own skin that one can think critically about one's ideas. As we aspire to be more rational, I think that this is a vital ability to cultivate.
Of course, criticism is not always easy to take. We like to be right, and some of what we put out there may involve cherished ideas in which we have invested considerable time. But our ability to hear and incorporate constructive criticism into our work is essential to our growth. It makes us far better and what we are doing.
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