Civility, what is it good for?


First, this comment from Patrick Appel concerning civility and atheists needs to be read for I think it’s quite an excellent response. I don’t have much to add to that, but I do want to talk about civility, or the alleged lack thereof, and on what grounds should we judge it’s effectiveness.

There’s a lot of criticism for the acerbic style of some atheists, and amazingly a good bit of that criticism comes from other atheists. The grounds for the criticism seems to be that the lack of civility would turn people off and thus, make religious deconversions near impossible, but who says that’s proper grounds for judgement? In fact, I’d say that many atheists don’t express their opinions as sales pitches. We’re not trying to be Billy Mays, we’re trying to speak out against what we think is wrong and speak up for what we see is right. Yes, there’s an implied intent to convince, but not necessarily to convert. Take for instance stands against “In God We Trust”, “under god”, 10 commandment monuments on government property, Creationism in schools, Abstinence only sex ed, the Office of Faith Based Initiatives, exemption from medical care for children on religious grounds, and a host of other issues. These are issues atheists rant about, and rightly so, and yes we want readers to agree with us but the goal of deconversion is not primary, and perhaps isn’t present at all in those rants, so to judge on potential to deconvert, I see as inappropriate grounds.

There’s of course the argument from the civility proponents that regardless or your intent, if your message isn’t delivered with civility, it’ll be disregarded. This was actually taken to a ridiculous extreme awhile back by Sam Harris who suggested atheists shouldn’t call themselves atheists because soon as people hear the word atheist, they stop listening to whatever you’re saying. Well you know what? Perhaps you may draw more flies with honey than vinegar, but more is not all, and some flies, no matter how sweet the honey or how much of it you put out, just won’t come over, so again, the grounds for judgement I see are inappropriate. Since it’s not an absolute, judging based on it is pretty dodgy.

Another battle raging currently is in the Science community. One side, the civility proponents, insist that there shouldn’t be open objections to religion by scientists and furthermore, that in order for people to accept science and not be threatened by it, they need to be reassured that it won’t challenge their delicate, religious sensibilities. The other side, and I believe rightly so, call these people “appeasers”, arguing that the goal of science is discovery and understanding, and such facts aren’t dependent upon someone’s choice to accept them or not, they’re facts, therefore objecting to a lack of civility towards religion is ridiculous. True, people can choose to ignore such facts, and many do (and sometimes at great peril), but appeasing such people’s fears for fears of your own that they may threaten Science if not appeased is, imo, most objectionable.

I don’t like the incivility some bring to the discussion, but if they didn’t, would anyone even be talking about this (sic) issues?

Again, I agree with Patrick’s opinion. Incivility has it’s uses, and that alone should eliminate any knee-jerk opposition to it as absolutely ineffective, but amusingly I think that even on the various grounds some are judging by, it still may not be warranted to object. It’s the old axiom of ‘different strokes for different folks’, and perhaps being berated will provoke a deconversion, or people might be more inclined to listen to what the frothy atheist is saying or what he’ll say next (ala Howard Stern’s Private Parts) as opposed to the genteel, civil atheist.

Civility, what is it good for? Well, I’d say it depends, so civility absolutists can go sit on that and spin. ;)

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4 Responses to “Civility, what is it good for?”

  1. Civility vs hostility a big game of prisoner's dilemna. Tit for Tat is the solution ;)

  2. I'm constantly facing the criticism that I'm too acerbic, too forceful, too outspoken about my rejection of religion, magical thinking, and too offensive to religious people because I say it like it is – religion is brainwashing, and has nothing to do with reality. I understand the reason for the criticism, but if we let the religious force us to water down the truth because the truth offends them, then what good is it? I think we need to go on offending the religious until they realise we're not going away, and we're no longer going to let them get away with their bigotry and their trying to force their morality into secular society and government. We need to be stronger not weaker in our denunciation of unconstitutional religious influences and anti-scientific beliefs.

  3. A lot of this "civility" talk is simply an attempt by theists and their sympathizers to control atheists – and the debate – by controlling both the terms of the debate and the terminology that sets the boundaries of the debate. I'm all for being civil, but I'm not going to cede the right to negotiate the terms of the discussion. QF's point about Tit for Tat is a good one – if they speak and behave civilly, so will I. If they're obnoxious, I will exercise my right to be obnoxious too.

  4. One benefit of incivility is it's always useful in obfuscating arguments. This can help those without cogent argument escape the necessary induction that would likely expose their follies. My main gripe with incivility is that it obscures reason.

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