Further Religious Discourse at Dartmouth

It didn’t escape my attention that the Dartmouth published an editorial by staff columnist Peter Blair ’12 in response to my column advocating fair consideration of atheists at the college. I was disappointed to see that Blair’s column not only completely misrepresents my position, but also further exemplifies the very attitude that I warned is standing in the way of productive religious debate with nonbelievers.

Blair selectively quotes from my editorial, leaving out crucial context in order to give the impression that I advocate a “double standard”:

The most stunning example of this double standard comes when Golas writes, “Ideas and beliefs, however, are automatically entitled to neither respect nor even tolerance.” Then he writes, “motivation to enter a discussion requires the impression that one’s position will actually be heard and considered.” Golas reserves the right to openly scorn others, granting “neither respect nor even tolerance,” but demands a respectful audience to discuss his own views.

Neither quote of mine is represented faithfully. The first had nothing to do with scorning other people; it was a statement about how ideas and beliefs must be judged on their merits1. I stand by that statement, and emphasize that it applies as much to my ideas as anyone’s. Meanwhile, my request that atheists’ arguments be given consideration was made specifically within the context of our being invited into debate by the religious. I demand no special audience from anyone. If someone invites me to hear their argument in honest academic discourse, however, then they ought to grant me the courtesy of reciprocating that consideration.

Perhaps what confuses Blair is that I reserve the right not to enter into debate at all. Murray was eager to find a way to coerce his opponents into debating him, and assumed that those who failed to meet his challenge were either cowardly or incapable of defending their position. He ignored, however, all the legitimate reasons as to why someone perfectly capable of holding their own in religious debate would nonetheless choose not to. Maybe they have better things to do. Maybe they just aren’t interested or don’t feel like it. Maybe they feel that debate would be futile. Regardless, justification isn’t necessary; no one is required to enter into debate if they don’t want to.

But never did I suggest that I or any other atheist deserved to be granted a special audience even if we chose to abstain from debate. I find Blair’s attack particularly galling in light of the fact that that’s precisely the attitude I rebuked Murray for holding; indeed, that was the main point of my editorial! Murray, frustrated at finding people who disagreed with his beliefs, sought to draw them into open debate so they’d consider the merits of his position. However, Murray offered no indication that he was prepared to consider counterarguments from them in turn. “[R]eserves the right to openly scorn others . . . but demands a respectful audience to discuss his own views” hits the nail on the head.

As for Lerman’s comic strip and its relation to my supposed “double standard”: I might have been inclined to chastise Lerman for “‘belittling and insulting’ Murray for his beliefs” if I had thought that was what his comic was doing. As I read it, Lerman’s comic wasn’t mocking Murray’s beliefs so much as it was criticizing his hyper-sensitivity to having someone disagree with them (not to mention his apparent difficulty in writing a coherent editorial column). In no way did calling Murray’s beliefs “fairy tales” negate this criticism2. Clark and Blair, however, trumped up those two words as if the entire strip were nothing but a grave insult in lieu of substantial criticism.

A “fair hearing” for both sides is all I ever asked for. Blair claims that “intellectual Christianity welcomes honest, reasoned criticism.” But he, like Murray, seems unable to conceive that those of us who smirk, laugh at, or otherwise publicly express disagreement with religious sentiments are capable of levying such criticism. Instead, Blair assumes our position is “based on nothing but the dogma of secularism’s intellectual superiority” and “rests on the assumption that people who disagree with [us] are stupid.”

He boasts about The Apologia’s having interviewed Dan Dennett last spring. Now, Dennett has done his fair share of smirking at religion. Presumably The Apologia did not accuse him of “cheap insults” or “assumptions of intellectual superiority” when they approached him for an interview. Why not extend that same courtesy to fellow members of the Dartmouth community?

In the course of this exchange, neither I nor Lerman ever called anyone stupid. I know far too little about Murray, Clark, or Blair to think any of them stupid3. I think they’re wrong. Wrong, wrong, a thousand times wrong! But not stupid!

Nor is my position based on dogma. Perhaps Blair simply has difficulty accepting that there are those of us who have heard the arguments in favor of religion and yet find them wanting. He, Clark, and Murray all call for open dialogue about religion, failing to realize that the dialogue is already happening and (in my humble estimation) they’re losing.

Allow me to reiterate my position on tolerance, since it seems to have gone unheeded by Blair: there is nothing “false” about our tolerance for the religious. We aren’t trying to silence them, get them expelled, or burn them at the stake. As much as I disagree with their beliefs, I nonetheless believe in my heart of hearts that they have a right to self-determination. But as Amanda Marcotte recently put it:

Look, I think believers and atheists should practice tolerance and get along. Of course I do. But practicing tolerance does’t mean that you have to pretend that a truth claim isn’t a truth claim. As believers feel free to make claims about the way the universe works, then they should be challenged on it. That’s what happens when you make truth claims. That your claims are hard to back up is unfortunate, but that isn’t the fault of atheists, and calling atheists mean because this is true doesn’t change that. Having your arguments disproven isn’t assault, and using terms like “pummel” implies coercion that is not going on. You’re free to believe that the moon is made out of green cheese, but being free to believe that doesn’t require that other people coddle that delusion.

Murray, Clark, Blair, and others are free to believe what they will. They are welcome to try defending those beliefs with reason. But they need to be prepared for disagreement.

1 Full quote: “Ideas and beliefs, however, are automatically entitled to neither respect nor even tolerance. Respect must be earned; ideas must be allowed to stand or fall on their own merit.”
2 That’s what I meant when I defended the comic against the accusation that it was ad hominem. Argumentum ad hominem is an attempt to undermine a person’s position by linking its validity to an irrelevant aspect of that person’s character. I’ll concede that, in common parlance, “ad hominem” is often used (rightly or wrongly) to refer to any personal attack. However, though getting personal may be considered impolite, it isn’t inherently fallacious.
3 The fact that they’re students at Dartmouth weighs against it, though doesn’t preclude it.