Religious Discourse at Dartmouth

One of my greatest regrets about college is that it took me so long to realize that I was an atheist. I didn’t come out as such until partway through my senior year. Dartmouth was sorely in need of some atheist activism, and I’m sorry that I graduated before I could contribute. However, I may yet be able have some impact on my alma mater.

On 17 Nov, Justin Murray ’13 published an editorial in The Dartmouth (America’s Oldest College Newspaper™) decrying the lack of respect that his religious beliefs are shown:

I have a special talent: I can identify nearly every skeptic in any crowd without asking questions. All I do is announce that I’m Catholic and wait to see who smirks.

Murray went on to accuse the “cynics” on campus of hiding behind tolerance as an excuse to avoid religious debate. Because clearly, the only reason we wouldn’t want to debate him is because we’re cowards. One of The D’s cartoonists, Drew Lerman ’10, gave Murray’s editorial the rebuttal it deserved. But Charles Clark ’11, editor-in-chief of Dartmouth’s Christian apologetics magazine, wasn’t impressed. He published an editorial in The D on 23 Nov, supporting Murray and dismissing Lerman’s comic as intolerant, ad hominem, and anti-intellectual. (Lerman had an answer to that, as well.)

Today, I am proud to say that The Dartmouth published my column, under the headline Calling It Like It Is, giving an atheist’s perspective on the state of religious debate at the college. The editorial is available on The D’s website and reproduced in full below.



If Christians like Justin Murray (“An Intolerable Situation,” Nov. 17) and Charles Clark (“Constructive Criticism,” Nov. 23) truly want respectful, reasoned debate with their nonbelieving peers, they can start by refraining from belittling and insulting those of us who aren’t sufficiently deferential to their beliefs.

Consider Clark’s reaction to Drew Lerman’s “The Still North” comic strip from Nov. 18. Clark accuses Lerman of “intolerance” and “anti-intellectualism,” and dismisses the comic as “an ad hominem attack that characterized Murray as credulous, paranoid and inarticulate.” Before Clark goes bandying about accusations of anti-intellectualism, perhaps he should brush up on his logical fallacies, specifically the meaning of “ad hominem.” There is nothing ad hominem about highlighting the absurdities of someone’s position through parody, and to discount Lerman’s critique because a comic strip isn’t “proper academic fashion” is to dismiss a decades-old tradition of editorial cartooning and centuries-old tradition of satire.

The fact is, Murray’s column does come across as credulous, paranoid, and inarticulate. He considers a simple smirk to be a grave insult to his faith. He ludicrously blames tolerance for stifling debate and “allow[ing] cynicism and prejudice to infest our society.”

Tolerance, in this context, is simply the acknowledgment of one another’s human rights. We recognize that people are entitled to their own beliefs, so long as in holding those beliefs they do not infringe upon the rights of others. The sentiment of Voltaire as famously summarized by Evelyn Beatrice Hall is part of the very foundation of the academic environment. Tolerance doesn’t inhibit debate. Quite the opposite, it helps preserve reasoned debate by guarding against the alternative: raw, unproductive conflict.

The assumption, inherent in Murray’s column and echoed in Clark’s dismissal of Lerman, is that heresy against religion is equivalent to intolerance of the religious. For all that the Dartmouth community lauds pluralism, it too often takes the form of believing that it doesn’t matter what your specific religious beliefs are, as long as you agree that it’s important to subscribe to some higher power. If this is pluralism, then pluralism must be rejected, for it marginalizes a significant subset of the community.

We nonbelievers are put in a no-win situation. If we speak our minds, then we’re accused of being disrespectful and intolerant. If we keep our opinions to ourselves, as we all too often do to avoid stirring up fruitless argument, then we’re called disrespectful, intolerant, and apparently craven.

What really frustrates people like Murray is that they are being merely tolerated. Peaceful coexistence isn’t enough for them; they want their beliefs to be heard and–most of all–respected. 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.

Atheists at Dartmouth would gladly speak to religion’s failings. However, motivation to enter a discussion requires more than assurance that one won’t be physically assaulted for one’s opinions; it also requires the impression that one’s position will actually be heard and considered. Murray apparently views anyone with an opinion contrary to his own as a “snide,” “condescending” “cynic.” Clark similarly writes us off as “scoffers.” That attitude betrays absolutely no interest in considering the merits of our arguments. What incentive, then, do we have to enter debate with them? I won’t deny that there are cynics out there. But to assume at the outset that your opponent’s position is held out of callous cynicism is to enter the discourse in bad faith.

For my part, I am a proud and confident atheist and skeptic. I reject religion thoroughly, not out of prejudice or a cynical refusal to entertain ideas that challenge my current beliefs, but rather as the natural consequence of reasoned inquiry and honest investigation into the nature of the world.

That may sound intolerant or disrespectful to some. Far from it; I can respect the rights of others to their beliefs without having to respect the beliefs themselves. And when asked my mind, I will speak my mind, and I have enough respect for my fellow students’ intelligences that I won’t sugar-coat it.

Dartmouth has a rich academic culture in which deep discussions can and do flourish. It was that selfsame environment that led me to question and ultimately abandon my prior religious beliefs; if I smirk at religion, it’s because I know what it’s like to have cast off those fetters. And by no means am I alone. To the religious students on campus, if you are honest about wanting to open a dialogue, then there are those among your peers who will happily give you a run for your money. As it currently stands, if we refrain from debating religion with you, it isn’t out of cowardice. It is out of politeness.