Where does this idea come from that debate, expressing disagreement, saying “I really think you’re mistaken about this,” and making a case for why you think you’re right, are somehow acts of disrespect, and intolerance, and even violation?
We’re not talking about expressing disagreement at Thanksgiving dinner here; or ranting about it to people you’ve buttonholed at parties; or screaming it into bullhorns on the street. We’re talking about expressing it in legitimate public forums of discussion and debate: forums that people are free to listen to or not, as they choose. Where did the idea come from that this is an act of ugly, dogmatic bigotry, a flatly unacceptable part of modern civilized conversation?
I’ve been in a number of debates on Facebook lately (btw, if you’re on Facebook, friend me!), with several Wiccans, neo-pagans, New Age Christians, and other practitioners of woo spirituality. And I’ve been running into a baffling new version of the “Shut up, that’s why” argument — one that basically says that any attempt to persuade someone that you’re probably right and they’re probably mistaken is a form of bigoted intolerance, and a slippery slope to violent oppression.
When it comes to religion, anyway.
It’s a trope that says, “All experience is subjective, and therefore all experiences are equal and have to be treated with equal respect.” Or, rather, “All religious experience is subjective, and therefore all religious experiences are equal and have to be treated with equal respect.” It’s a trope that says, “It’s okay to share your thoughts on religion… as long as you don’t disagree with anyone else’s, or try to persuade them that they’re wrong.”
And it’s driving me up a tree.
I’m not sure who I’m talking to in this piece, as anyone who holds this view is by definition not going to be interested in my arguments, and probably won’t have even gotten this far. But… well, I have this idea in my head, and it’s going to keep buzzing around there until I get it out. So here goes.
First of all: There’s a niggling little problem with the “All religious beliefs are subjective, and we have to treat them all with equal respect” trope. And that’s that it’s simply not true.
I don’t mean it’s not true that “all religious beliefs have to be treated with equal respect.” (Although it’s not.) I mean that the people espousing this view do not actually and consistently hold it.
And they definitely think their idea that conflict over religion is bad, and that all subjective experiences of religion are equal, is right. Every time one of these supposedly “accepting of all world views” folks tries to convince me — I repeat for emphasis, convince me — that the attempt to convince other people of things is disrespectful, I want to bash my head against the wall. What part of “self-contradiction” don’t they understand?
More importantly: There’s a fundamental logical problem with the “You can share your ideas… but you can’t disagree with anyone else’s” trope. That problem is this: What if your idea is, “I think this idea is mistaken”? What if your idea is, “This idea is directly contradicted by the evidence”? How are you supposed to express that idea? Why is it okay to express any and all ideas and experiences — except for that one? Why do all experiences have to be respected… except for my experience that the universe is almost certainly an entirely physical entity, and that said view is the one that’s best supported by the available evidence?
How is it respectful of all religious viewpoints to shut down this one?
How is it respectful of all religious opinions to shut down the opinion that religion is mistaken?
And I’m sure they’re sincere. They sincerely think that that’s what they want.
But that’s not what they’re doing.
And, of course, they’re not just shutting out the universe. They’re also shutting out anyone who disagrees with them.
Which, of course, is exactly the point of the exercise. The point of the “Disagreeing with religious beliefs is intolerant” trope is to shut out people who disagree with their particular beliefs.
I mean… if your idea is strong and good, why would you be so vehemently opposed to debate about it? If your idea is strong and good, why would you treat the very notion of debate and disagreement as ill-mannered at best and a brutal violation at worst? If your idea is strong and good, why would your response to someone trying to convince you otherwise be to shut that person down as fast as you can?
Now, I get that there’s more going on here than just your standard, “I don’t want my religion to be criticized because I know it can’t stand up.” I do think that’s a lot of it… but I also think it’s more complex than that.
So atheists — or at least atheist activists, atheists who make arguments against religion and try to persuade people that it’s mistaken — automatically get slotted into the “intolerant fundamentalists who want to force everyone to be just like them” camp. That’s the only context the ecumenical New Agers have for people who strongly disagree with other people’s religions. So that’s the context we get stuck in.
Then, of course, some people are just very conflict-averse. There are some people who don’t like debating their ideas… simply because they don’t like debating. (Although if that’s what’s going on here, I don’t understand why they don’t simply ignore the debates, instead of trying to stop other people from having them. And when people get seriously aggro and combative, to the point of being outright venomous and nasty, all in defense of respect and tolerance and a “live and let live” philosophy… well, that definitely makes you wonder.)
So if they’re going to hang on to the beliefs they’re so attached to, they have to try to stop atheists from making our case in the first place. Or, if they can’t stop us from making our case, they have to find a good reason not to listen to us. They have to mentally slot our criticisms into the category of “disrespectful intolerant dogma”… which they therefore don’t have to think about.