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The sound and fury of sanctimony

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

imagesThe Easter holidays got me thinking – again – about what each of us could do to increase the odds of having a conversation on the Internet, thereby potentially changing our minds about something. In particular, changing our minds about how we perceive each other’s views on faith and religion. After all, changing our minds is what reading and writing should be about: discovering how we are wrong, rather than reinforcing to ourselves the ways in which we are right.

Easter brought these thoughts back because of the predictable squabbles that flared up between religious believers (well, Christians in this case) and those of us who don’t believe. Both of these groups can take themselves far too seriously: the non-religious through going out of their way to also be anti-religious, and the religious through taking offence at any slight, no matter how minor.

Some people did seem to go out of their way to be blasphemous, especially on Twitter, but jokes like the one that got me into brief trouble when I re-tweeted it (say Jesus backwards. Now say God backwards. Now say them together), or Barry Bateman’s quip about this being a day all about “caramel centered chocolate eggs” (which attracted a full day of judgement) are surely of the sort that can (and should) simply be laughed off as a difference of opinion.

Most of the time, a commitment to secular values would allow for both “sides” to leave each other alone, because their actions and beliefs, kept private, have no impact on others. But for both of these groups, the nuances of how (and why) people believe or disbelieve can get lost in convenient caricatures. In fact, sometimes even the truth is hostage to the will to (dis)believe. Two brief examples aren’t conclusive, but hopefully serve to make the point.

On the Christian side, the Church of England did themselves no favours through being caught out in what appears to be a blatant lie. In the run-up to Easter, they released the results of a poll indicating that 4 out of 5 people believe in the power of prayer – and gratifyingly for them, that belief in the power of prayer seemed to be on the rise in the youth.

The only problem is that the poll shows nothing of the sort. The 4 out of 5 figure is derived from the fact that when asked the question “Irrespective of whether you currently pray or not, if you were to pray for something at the moment, what would it be for?”, 80% of people gave a response instead of saying “I don’t know” or “I would never pray for anything”.

The desire to have a good-news story about the church, especially in the run-up to Easter, is understandable. And in light of 2011’s Dawkins’ foundation research indicating that fewer people seem to believe in the power of prayer than ever, this particular good-news story would no doubt be particularly welcome. But when your brand is built on virtue, and is in competition with others that claim you’re simply making stuff up, it does no good to make stuff up.

On the atheist side, I’m rather grateful to the majority of religious folk who are either disinterested enough or kind enough to not make more of an issue out of the continued civil wars around the role of social justice causes inside atheism, in particular the widespread allegations of misogyny. Instead, the focus continues to be on some of the more prominent voices for non-belief, and in particular, Dawkins himself.

And he seldom fails to disappoint those looking for a soundbite purportedly demonstrating the tone-deafness and hostility of atheists. While I do think most of the examples chosen to make this case are cherry-picked or misinterpreted, it remains true that doing our own cherry-picking or misinterpretation in response is no evidence of virtue.

Furthermore, he really does put his foot in it sometimes, like last week when he told his 660 000 Twitter followers:

He’s right on the logic, sure – but it would have been easy to be right while simultaneously not being maximally offensive.

I’ve addressed questions of strategy before, for example in relation to someone who does actually try to be the lightning-rod that Dawkins is perceived as being – David Silverman of American Atheists. While I haven’t changed my mind that we need people like him to expand the polarities of the debate, and perhaps to stretch the middle-ground for more moderate strategies, they do sometimes make the PR job difficult for those of us who think of religious people as mostly harmless, most of the time.

Likewise, the overly sanctimonious believers who seem to have sacrificed their sense of humour do the majority of believers no favours. Nor, of course, do those who argue against equal rights for gay couples or availability of contraceptives; or those who condone (through inaction, at least) child abuse or the stoning of adulterers and rape victims.

In short, there are all sorts of obstacles to being understood and to having a dialogue. Eliminating some of these require getting our own houses in order, rather than looking outward. But when we do look outward, let’s try to look at what’s in front of us, rather than being distracted by the convenient fiction of the stereotype.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

5 replies on “The sound and fury of sanctimony”

Atheists and believers always boggle my mind. Neither group knows for sure whether or not God exists yet they often pronounce as if they do. Surely accepting, for now at any rate and until otherwise proven, that there’s no certainty either way is the more sensible attitude.

That’s too easy, Bruce. There’s no need to “know for sure”. One can (must) work on probabilities, and consider things like the burden of proof. Or, would you ask that we also leave open the possibility that the Easter Bunny exists, just because there’s no proof she doesn’t?

The “sensible” attitude does include humility, yes – but it can also allow for you to ignore/discount the least probable of competing hypotheses.

How easily the mask of tolerance slips.

Jacques, you only had one comment to respond to, apparently from an agnostic – already halfway on your side (Sorry Bruce, for the label, please tolerate my encapsulation of things for brevity).

Your pride in your intellect is simply unable to refrain from asserting that it is sufficiently informed to pronounce that it doesn’t need to “know for sure”.

And then that same pride pronounces that it knows for sure that faith is the least probable competing hypothesis. You are an immediately unattractive case for participation in any rational discussion when you reveal such devotion to your infallibility.

Seeing as I have readily conceded that we can’t know for sure – and that I don’t know for sure – your comment is rather obtuse. My response to Bruce was about reasons for believing things, and scales of probability. The likelihood of any *particular* god existing is surely lower than none existing.

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