August 12, 2014

Claims of Offense From the Religious vs. Claims of Offense From Atheists

A sign posted by the Connecticut Valley Atheis...
A sign posted by the Connecticut Valley Atheists in Rockville's Central Park in December 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When an atheist expresses himself or herself and is promptly accused by Christians or Muslims of offending them, how does the atheist generally respond? While the atheist's response will vary depending on the situation and his or her personality, I think we can agree that it will often involve a "so what" reaction and rarely involve a decision to withhold criticism of religious belief. When an atheist blogger writes something critical of Christianity or Islam and is accused of sacrilege or blasphemy by Christians and/or Muslims, the atheist blogger typically keeps doing what he or she is doing. We recognize blasphemy as a victimless offense, and we typically suggest that there may be some merit in criticizing ridiculous ideas. This is not to say that we deliberately seek to offend religious believers (although some atheists certainly do); it simply means that we are neither surprised nor terribly bothered by claims of offense-taking from religious believers. We do not usually allow claims of offense-taking to silence us.

I don't think I've said anything controversial yet. In fact, I suspect that what I wrote above would find almost universal agreement among atheists. The anti-theists will certainly agree; many of them go out of their way to mock religious belief and may even hope to offend religious believers. I suspect that even those atheists and humanists who are fond of interfaith dialogue and encourage atheists and humanists to work alongside religious believers to pursue shared goals would agree that we should not withhold criticism of religion simply because it may offend some religious believers.

As clear as most atheists seem to be that we should not let claims of offense-taking from religious believers stifle our criticism of religious belief, we are far less clear about this when it comes to other groups. We have let claims of offense-taking from many different groups of atheists limit our work. The most recent example of which I am aware involved Hemant Mehta's (Friendly Atheist) decision to shelve a book project after receiving complaints from atheists about the subject matter. This is certainly not the first time this has happened, and it will not be the last.

I'm not going to claim that we should ignore claims of offense-taking from our fellow atheists or that there are never circumstances in which we should abandon projects, censor ourselves, apologize to the offended, and the like. We all make mistakes, and most of us have crossed various lines at some point that we sincerely regret crossing. Many of us who are skeptics believe that we should consider information as it becomes available and use it to inform our decision-making process. If I write something and subsequently receive feedback indicating that it is being interpreted in a very different way than what I intended, it makes sense that I might want to revise it, delete it, and/or apologize for my role in creating confusion and offense.

What I will say, however, is that I think we atheists should be worried about the perils of using group pressure to shape discourse and the many ways in which it can be abused. Many of us are minorities in cultures saturated with religion and surrounded by religious believers who would like to stifle our self-expression. For us to be free, it is not sufficient to overcome that particular pressure. We must also remain vigilant to similar threats coming from other atheists and humanists. We can all make choices about the sort of content we consume; we do not need group efforts to purge content which some consider objectionable.

Writing about Hemant's decision to drop the book project, Mojoey (Deep Thoughts) recently wrote:
One of my pet peeves with religion is the social pressure focused on thought crime. It’s an ugly aspect of repression normally associated with those I rail against. In fact, it was one of the things that drove me away from organized religion. I am sad to say that I see the concept working in the Atheist Movement by way of killing creativity and free expression.
I think he's right, and he's helped me to recognize one of the reasons I have such strong feelings on this subject. I had been thinking that my feelings were due to what I saw as the inconsistency between freethought and those who want to police the atheist community. But while that's part of it, Mojoey's words helped me to realize that my intensely negative reactions to the social pressures exerted by religious communities to stifle criticism are even more important.

I don't want to trade religious thought policing for secular thought policing. I don't want to escape a religious community where everybody had to walk on eggshells so as not to offend perpetually offended religious believers only to find myself in a secular community that seems to operate in a similar way. No, I want a secular community in which the free expression of ideas is celebrated and we set aside the ridiculous notion that hurt feelings should somehow restrict our discourse, limit our creativity, or serve as a tool for maintaining conformity.

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