Some of the most tired arguments by religious people against atheism and atheists is that atheists are “too harsh”, “not accommodating enough”, that we are “mean”, “disrespectful”, that we enjoy being smarter and more rational than everyone else” (like that was an insult), that we “ask too many questions”, are “haters”, that with our repeated questioning and inquiring we “kill the positive mood”, that we rather be “right than loved”, that we are “intolerant”, “trolls” and enjoying telling little girls and boys that Santa is not real.
Such accusations are usually thrown around by people who have either failed to or refuse to argue atheists based on merit, instead resorting to sophistry to derail the discussion and obfuscate in order to, ultimately, cover the fact that they really do not have a valid argument.
Using fallacious arguments result in the discussion no longer being about content, but about tone, and how something is said, and that what they what is said just doesn’t sound after-school special – that it makes religious people feel bad etc.
Another similar type of argument, if one can even call it a “argument” – or line of “arguing” are ad hominem attacks and other petty personal attacks.
In this case, the obfuscation and diversion is achieved by going for the low blow, by trying trying to “invalidate” the atheist by not commenting on the content of their message but their personality and mind-set, the point being that if you poke enough holes (imaginary or not) into an atheists person and character, you can show how invalid they as peoples are altogether.
Like being an atheist was some sort of a pathology – a flaw, a defect – that was only brought on by some kind of a dysfunction. “You sound bitter”, “you sound angry” , “you sound like an asshole”, “I feel sorry for you”, “you seem to have no love in your life” blah blah yawn are the common retorts of religious folks who harbor a special kind of loathing for atheists.
One such especially loathed atheist under a constant barrage for being very outspoken about religion is Bill Maher.
People think he goes too far, that he displays “unmitigated bigotry”, that he is too disrespectful or not respectful enough of religion and religious people. That he is “mean”, a “hater”, “too harsh”.
In a recent interview with TheBlaze, actor Sean Astin, who is famous for starring in such classics as “The Goonies“, “Son in Law” and “The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy, remarked that Bill Maher is a “cripplingly intellectually abusive atheist” who does a disservice to thoughtful people with his “excessive need to promote atheism.” He went on to say that dismissing “a feeling that millions of people are having is not very generous of spirit.”
Now, I admit that Bill Maher’s particular brand of humor is not for everyone. If you watch his show and expect to find politically correct assertions, a “balanced view” on unmitigated and institutionalized Conservative racism, misogyny, hypocrisy and harmful policies or if you expect him to talk politely about religion, then you will be sorely disappointed. Maher says it like it is and he doesn’t hold back.
That said, the issue with Astin’s assertion is not really so much Maher’s brand of humor – which may or may not be palatable to some – but that behind Astin’s sentiment that Bill Maher is “intellectually abusive” because he dismisses the “feeling that millions of [religious] people are having” lies a fundamental failure to understand criticism of religion in the first place.
The fact that Astin frames Maher’s mocking and dismissive attitude towards religion and god as being problematic because it doesn’t take into account the boo boos of its followers tells me that Astin, just as a lot of people who criticize atheists, simply does not understand religion and its harms, because if he did, he would not try to give it credence or worse, defend it.
Because, the thing is, behind Maher’s tongue in cheek attitude towards religious people and religion in general, lies the understanding, which I share with him, that religion is harmful – a point which a lot of people miss.
If you have to ask me why I am contemptuous of religion, mock it, speak out against it, advocate against it, write about it and critique it as much as I do, then you simply have not understood why religion is a problem in the first place.
The problem with such an approach is that by turning perpetrators and transgressors into victims – which is essentially what Sean Astin and other religion-apologists do all the time, you disappear those that have been harmed by those perpetrators.
In other words, instead of asking about all the people who are hurt and killed, discriminated against, dehumanized, their Human Right’s trampled on and otherwise harmed by religious people and their “feelings” every day, the victim in this scenario suddenly becomes the very entity doing all the killing, discriminating, dehumanizing, harming and subjugating.
So Maher’s words offend a bunch of religious people – boo fucking hoo – but what about all the myriad actions, in the form of policies and laws, regulations and penalties by religious people that have been harming, and continue to harm, countless of other people? What about their rights to not be subjugated, oppressed and discriminated against? What about their feelings?
Frankly, dear Sean Astin, if you are more concerned about not ruffling the feathers of religious people than you are about the detrimental consequences of religion and religiously influenced policies, then clearly, you missed the point.
What Sean Astin is advocating is basically a watered down, neutered and wishy-washy type of atheism, as if atheism and religion were not mutually exclusive and fundamentally at odds with one another, as if religion wasn’t harmful and as if atheism could just embrace religion and go with it.
What Sean Astin and people like him who keep commenting on someone’s tone when it comes to the subject of religion ultimately want is silence; say it once and shut up. Only speak when asked. He wants atheists to stop speaking up, to stop “promoting” rational thought and fact-based knowledge, to stop pointing out and fighting against the dangers inherent in religion.
The thing is, silence empowers bullies. It empowers ignorance, oppression and wrongs. So does a false sense of decorum and phony PCness.
Let’s do a little mental exercise here and imagine Sean Astin criticizing anti-racists, for example, wondering why they “dismiss the feelings that millions of [white supremacists] have. ” Most people would be outraged and cry racism if that were the case. That is because it not only would be racism but because decent people know that racism is wrong and harmful and that there is no acceptable amount of racism. Such people would not think that we somehow owed it to racists to remain polite and respect their racism and their (harmful) feelings and assertions born out of racism.
Yet religion and its followers get all sorts of leeway and passes even though religion is just as harmful to people as something like racism.
This is religious supremacy and it happens all the time: religion and its followers, despite harmful actions, directives and messages, are not viewed as harmful and detrimental – instead, they are sympathized with as these unjustly judged people who have feelings they do not want to see bruised and questioned, even if those “feelings” cause real harm.
Again, if Sean Astin understood that religion was harmful (just as racism is harmful), he would not be defending the feelings of its followers In fact, I doubt he would even consider their feelings worth defending because there is no virtue in defending harm.
At any rate, the message atheists give, if you shave off the tone, is ultimately a positive one and I would say that it, in fact, is incredibly “generous in spirit” to assert to the religious that not only can they be good without god, but that their thinking minds are capable of more than believing in fairy tales. That they can conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it.
That the concept of god and religion and the fairy tales, bigotry, hate, genocide, and ignorance entailed in them is a conception quite unworthy of self-respecting human beings who constantly debase themselves as miserable sinners.
Suggesting that we ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face; that we ought to make the best we can of the world without god(s) and if it is not so good as we wish, try to change things by employing knowledge, kindness and courage, instead of superstition and fairy tales; suggesting that we do not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men, that our intelligence and empathy can create a meaningful future, thus extending to the religious the same capacity for intellectual authenticity and rigor that atheists celebrate, is hardly offensive or abusive.