Not Saussure

January 6, 2007

Who’re you trying to persuade, and why?

Filed under: Politics, Religion — notsaussure @ 8:27 pm

There’s a somewhat confused article at Talk is Cheap Comment is Free by Tobias Jones about how Secular Fundamentalists Are The New Totalitarians. I don’t particularly want to discuss the issues it raises, though I might do later over the weekend, but the tone of some of the comments — as do the tones of many discussions in Comment is Free and elsewhere, both on religion and other matters — got me wondering, ‘Who are these people trying to persuade?’

Let me explain; no matter what I might think of someone’s views, if I’m trying to win him over to my point of view, I’m not going to tell him he’s an idiot, and certainly not right at the start of the discussion. This is nothing particularly to do with good manners; it’s purely pragmatic. A moment’s thought should be sufficient to tell anyone that if you’re trying to win someone over, you start by establishing common ground and then try to lead him from there to where you want him to arrive. You don’t start by telling he’s an idiot, since he knows he isn’t and the fact you think he is just confirms, as far as he’s concerned at least, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

It’s the same principle if you’re debating something in front of an audience; you’re not there trying to win over your opponent but the people who’re following the discussion. People who agree with you anyway will doubtless enjoy being told the other chap’s an idiot but it won’t go down too well with those uncommitted members of the audience whom you seek to persuade to your way of seeing things. I’m happy to discuss religion with people, but if they start out by telling me that, as far as they’re concerned, belief in God is like belief in Santa Claus and that anyone who isn’t an atheist must be either brainwashed or an idiot, I’m not offended particularly but I rapidly lose interest since, whatever the chap’s trying to do, he’s obviously not interested in persuading me of anything other than that he feels strongly about the subject. That’s all very well for him but I can’t see why he should think his feelings about religion (or who should win Celebrity Big Brother) are of any particular interest to me or anyone else. If he wants to try to persuade me of something, then it’s a funny way to go about it.

Indeed, quite why he should be so anxious to persuade me of his views is an interesting question. I can see why the evangelical Christian is concerned that someone should see the error of his ways; after all, as far as the evangelical is concerned, his interlocutor’s immortal soul is at stake. But what, in practical terms, does it matter to the person arguing against religion? Argue against various practical consequences, certainly, though even then — at least to my mind — it would be better to address the practical consequences as part of a wider discussion. Yes, it’s doubtless an anomaly that Anglican bishops sit by right in the House of Lords without even being put to the necessity of lending money to the Labour Party, but their presence there isn’t the only aspect of Lords reform that’s up for discussion, so why not deal with them as part of the whole question? Yes, by all means let’s talk about religious groups and individuals promoting City Academies, but again, that seems part of a wider question about the whole idea of City Academies, how they should funded and if they should exist at all. Laws against blasphemy? Again, worth dealing with but hardly top of the list of most people’s worries about freedom of speech, I’d have thought.

Let us imagine that someone decided to dispute the proposition that Fermat’s Last Theorem has been solved. Like most non-mathematicians, I suspect, I wasn’t aware that the theorem remained unsolved, or even that there was such a thing, solved or not, until I read Simon Singh’s fascinating book on the subject, and I can’t quite see how the theorem’s solution changes very much for most of us, though it’s obviously different if you’re a mathematician. I choose the example deliberately, since for most of us we’ve got to take it on faith that the theorem has, in fact, been solved, since according to Simon Singh there are only a couple of hundred people in the world capable of understanding the full proof. Nevertheless, apparently professional mathematicians who can understand such matters have looked at it, or at least at parts of it, and there’s a consensus among those who understand such matters that Fermat’s last theorem has, in fact, been solved, just as there was consensus amongst the learned a couple of hundred years ago that God existed.

However, can anyone imagine getting particularly heated about whether or not there exists a valid solution to Fermat’s last theorem? I doubt it, even though that’s a proposition that’s — at least in theory — demonstrably true or false. If someone’s particularly bothered about the truth of the proof he can set down to studying mathematics and, eventually, satisfy himself whether the proof is valid, which you can’t for the question of whether or not God exists or not. Why get aerated about the truth or otherwise of an unprovable proposition when we can’t get that bothered whether someone’s right or wrong (though we may think he’s very eccentric in his views) about a question that can answered?

I can understand the argument that disputes about Fermat’s last theorem don’t lead to the teaching of junk science in schools, but that misses the point; it’s perfectly possible to believe in God and deplore the teaching of Creationism as part anything other than RE (at least in the UK it is); just ask the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Catholic Bishops of England, Wales and Scotland (pdf here, if anyone’s interested). Nor, I agree, does it lead to wars, but neither; I would argue, does religion; political circumstances — usually to do with one lot of people having something someone else wants and the someone else being unwilling to part with it — cause wars, and religions and ideologies get pressed into service. No, were I American, then I might well see things differently, since there religion is an important political force, but here it’s hardly relevant most of the time outside Northern Ireland, and there it’s more of a tribal marker than anything else.

There’s some reason for the emotional heat in this dispute which I don’t quite understand. I can see why some people get upset about having their cherished beliefs attacked; you might think that someone’s spouse is a complete pain in the neck but, if the two of them are happy together, you wouldn’t be surprised if one of them got upset if you told them what you thought of the other one, no matter how justified you thought your criticisms might be. But getting so upset about what — at least from the atheist’s point of view — is an abstract intellectual question is a bit odd. One can’t imagine so much interest being excited, or passions expended, on a discussion about whether the Monarchy should exist, and that’s a real political and economic institution that affects our lives, albeit only tangentially in most cases

I must give this further consideration.


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16 Comments »

  1. Brilliant article. I’m having a debate with some of the participants over at

    http://womensspace.wordpress.com/2007/01/05/the-ashley-treatment/#comment-10837

    I call myself a feminist and so do they but at the moment we are having what is becoming a rapidly heated discussion.

    My argument is not with their desired outcome but with their method of achieving it.

    Sadly they seem to be missing this point and have resorted, in my opinion, to using generalisations rather than logic to make their point.

    Their reply?…

    that logiC didn’t come into it because no one gives them recognition anyway on account of their gender.

    Some people….

    Comment by puddlejumper — January 6, 2007 @ 9:43 pm

  2. I have been thinking about the same sort of thing a lot recently. The CiF article is good in some parts but bad in others. You might like to read my entry Confessions of a reformed fundamentalist or any of my other entries on religion. One thing I am interested in is that people who are anti-religion seem to lose their critical faculties when reading an article attacking religion. They will praise it regardless of its merits.

    Comment by Dan Goodman — January 7, 2007 @ 12:26 am

  3. For further update on my women’s space debate see here…

    http://newsuk.wordpress.com/2007/01/07/feministswhat-womens-spacethe-margins-wont-publish/

    Comment by puddlejumper — January 7, 2007 @ 1:58 am

  4. Not Saussure- I suspect amongst the people you mean to rebuke is me because I posted on CIF a response to the article and I think some of what you say is fair- I think I overreacted but can I lay out some of the reasons why.

    One of the difficulties with that article which was describing secular fundamentalism was that it was an argument that religious people were being discriminated against and hence needed protection- an argument which can very soon become a statement that they need to be allowed to decide and describe my rights though I disagree with them about religion. Look at the US where religious groups argue that homosexual marriage is an attack on religion and consequently ought to be banned. Its that kind of haunting image I have when I see secular fundamentalism.

    Besides which I don’t think there is any real threat to religion in this country- I really don’t see any threat whatsoever. Richard Dawkins is a completely marginal figure- about as marginal as say those religious people who want to ban fornication are. Dawkins is wrong yes- but he shouldn’t be seen as part of a fundamentalist trend and a persecution complex amongst the religious is not a good thing.

    That’s why I reacted strongly- though normally I am sympathetic to religion- especially given my cultural background to Christianity. I hope that positions my argument a bit better.

    Comment by Gracchi — January 7, 2007 @ 7:14 am

  5. The answer to your general question here is; “it depends”. If the other person is proposing a well thought out and well researched argument, then it is reasonable to respond to that argument with the respect it deserves. If, however, they do as the Bishops of York and Rochester did recently and simply demonise those with an opposing view and without one whit of research to substantiate their claims, then dubbing them “idiots” is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, it is a simple matter of observable fact.

    On the matter of Santa Claus, I have on occasion used this analogy. However, I prefer not to use it as Santa Claus is based upon (however loosely) a real historical figure. When arguing the “does god exist” thing, I tend to refer to the gods of antiquity and point out that as an atheist, I’m simply applying exactly the same criteria to Yaweh as we apply to Zeus, Ahmun, Odin and Mithras.

    As for passion? Again, it depends…

    I tend to take a live and let live approach. If people want to believe in supernatural beings, that’s fine by me as it isn’t doing me any harm. However, when church leaders start attempting to impose their world view on others, then, yes, I’ll become impassioned.

    Comment by Longrider — January 7, 2007 @ 9:12 am

  6. For my part, I feel a sense of exasperation when I read articles such as the one penned by Tobias Jones; the more so because there seem to have been so many of them recently. The exasperation is fuelled in part because such articles are usually filled with half-truths, e.g. that Dawkins wishes to ban religion, or missing the point, e.g. that Dawkins knowing nothing of the finer details of theology is therefore not fit to consider the question of the existence, or otherwise, of God. This latter tactic has been quite nicely satirised as “The Courtier’s Reply” by PZ Myers.

    In the article by Tobias Jones, I notice he conflates writers of both Behzti and Jerry Springer – The Opera as secular fundamentalists, which probably comes as a surprise to Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, the Sikh playwright who wrote Behzti. He also conflates postmodernist nihilists with atheists as “both believing in nothing”. As an atheist, I lack a belief in a god or gods, but I certainly believe in truth, preferably with a capital “T”. I certainly do not see myself as a postmodernist.

    I seem to have spent a good part of my life engaged in a game of “Whack-a-Mole” against homophobia. Just as it is dying down (at least in places), the game appears to have moved on to the second level, but this time involving something that looks a little like something that might well be called “atheistphobia”.

    Comment by Geoff Coupe — January 7, 2007 @ 9:46 am

  7. Over the holiday period I read a very good book by Robert Mayer, an American lawyer and mediator, based in California. The book is called, How to Win Any Argument: Without Raising Your Voice, Losing Your Cool, or Coming to Blows.

    A very good read. Amazon still has it in stock.

    Comment by Andrew Allison — January 7, 2007 @ 1:09 pm

  8. Gracchus, I certainly didn’t mean my comments as a criticism of what you had to say; far from it. I agree that the original article was quite muddled and I pretty much agree with your criticisms (I’m sorry, but I didn’t actually notice that you’d contributed to the thread until you drew my attention to it now, otherwise I’d have addressed your point more thoroughly).

    I think what Jones was driving at, though — and even if he wasn’t, this is what I think — that people tend to confuse secularism with atheism. It’s this mistake that the American religious fundamentalists make when it takes attempts to enforce the Americans’ constitutional separation of church and state as attacks on religion and it seems to me that their opponents make the even worse mistake of accepting the fundamentalists’ terms of argument. Seems to me that the state has no business getting involved in religion one way or the other, just as it has no business getting involved in partisan political politics. That means — to me, at least — that the state just shouldn’t get involved in controversies for or against religion; it’s not its job.

    Its job, to my mind, is the far more limited one of maintaining a basic set of rules to enable us to go about out business as we see fit. That means, among other things, having laws against murder and theft, not because God takes a dim view of murder and theft or because the state holds to a set of secular ethics that frown on these activities; it’s because experience has taught us that in order to enjoy the ability to go about our business and live our lives as we see fit, we need laws for the protection of life and property. It’s pragmatic, not religious and not ethical.

    That’s why I just don’t see the point of engaging in religious debate over political issues. Somebody’s ideas about what his religion has to say about gay marriage, for example, are relevant only to people who want to get married according to the rites of his religion. They have nothing to do with what the state may understand as a marriage or civil partnership or whatever. The Church of England, not so long ago, was embroiled in controversy about divorced people getting remarried in church; doubtless that’s very important if you’re a member of the C of E but no one suggested for a moment that it had anything to do with the status of people’s weddings in Register Offices any more than anyone thought it much affected what Catholics, Jews or Hindus might do. Exactly the same principle applies, it seems to me.

    It’s a similar argument, to my mind, with abortion. I’ve had a quick look over the very interesting article and extended thread to which Dan Goodman refers and which turned into, in part, a discussion about when life begins and whether it can be said to begin at conception. However, important though that argument is, I just don’t see that it’s the state’s business because, ultimately, it’s primarily a theological debate. Yes, from particular religious view-points the soul enters the body at the moment of conception and that makes abortion murder but that only applies of you believe in the soul in the first place. The role of the state isn’t to decide when souls are formed or if they exist in the first place; it’s to say that it won’t get involved in that sort of discussion and it won’t try to impose rules predicated on the nature of the soul upon people who don’t believe in souls in the first place.

    This, it seems to me, is the only line of argument you can profitably take with someone who wants to import his strongly held religious views into legislation. You’re not going to argue him out of his religious convictions, or at least not readily, any more than you could easily persuade someone through reason alone that he should or shouldn’t love his children. It doesn’t work that way. What you can do, though, is argue that the state can’t properly, and won’t try to, make laws on the basis of what God is thought to make of the matter.

    On purely pragmatic grounds, that seems the best way to proceed in such disputes — you’ll never settle the theological arguments, so there’s no point in trying, but you may well persuade the other chap, and, possibly more important, other less committed people as well, that it’s in everyone’s best interests if he leaves people alone to practice (or not) their religion and they leave him alone with his.

    It just seems to me that, in a political argument, there’s no point in trying to argue the religious side one way or the other because it’s not an argument that’s likely to get settled and, in any case, it’s the wrong argument to have.

    As to Longrider’s argument about not believing in Zeus etc, I think that’s a bit of a risky way of looking at it. I once asked a Hindu friend of mine if he really believed in the existence of a host of individual supernatural beings with distinct personalities and personal histories. He said of course he didn’t, and not many Hindus who’d thought about the matter did either. He went on to explain that it’s all to do with the difficulties you have trying to visualise and describe the infinite in limited and finite language.

    Fair enough; I don’t have any difficulty with the idea that artists in whatever medium use complex images and metaphors to try to express ideas and feelings that don’t readily translate into words or images but are, none the less, very real, so it doesn’t seem to me particularly odd that people do that when they’re trying to describe religious experiences. I certainly wouldn’t dismiss the work of William Blake, for example, by saying, ‘Well, I don’t believe in Urizen and that lot; they’re all made up characters’ — that would be completely to miss the point. And, I would suggest, the reason Blake went to the trouble of writing his ‘prophetic books’ (or even shorter works like Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience) rather than the Coles’ Notes version of them (‘Urizen stands for…’) is that what he’s trying to say can only be expressed through his highly symbolic and allusive language. Ditto a lot of more conventionally religious writers, to my mind.

    I’m afraid I’m not familiar with ‘The Courtier’s Reply’ to which Geoff Coupe alludes, but I’m frustrated with what I’ve read of Dawkins’ book — I’ve not read the whole thing yet, but from the reviews I don’t think I’m mistaken — because he doesn’t just miss ‘the finer details of theology’; he misses the whole basis of most mainstream Christian teaching on biblical interpretation and doesn’t seem to have much to say about anyone else’s religious beliefs.

    His argument seems to be that anyone who doesn’t read the Bible in the way he thinks Christians ought to isn’t really a Christian. Well, Ian Paisley would agree with him there (though obviously Dr Paisley wouldn’t agree with his conclusions) but I’m not at all sure I’m willing to accept Ian Paisley’s views on Christian doctrine even though Richard Dawkins agrees with him. Quite seriously, five minutes not with the Regius Professor of Theology but with his local parish priest or Anglican vicar would have been sufficient to tell him there was a whole different tradition in Biblical exegesis that he needed to take on, too, if his critique was going to be of anything other than very limited application. It’s not quite as bad as someone writing a critique of genetic theory based on the misapprehension that Professor Dawkins and Trofim Denisovich Lysenko would pretty much agree with each other, but it’s getting there.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 7, 2007 @ 5:21 pm

  9. As to Longrider’s argument about not believing in Zeus etc, I think that’s a bit of a risky way of looking at it.

    Oh, I don’t know. I can enjoy Blake and read uplifting stories of spiritual experience, just as I can be moved by a Gregorian chant. Mozart’s requiem, unashamedly religious, stirs my soul every time I hear it. I don’t have to believe in any deity to do this.

    I know it’s wandering off the subject you wanted to cover, but, briefly, Yahweh doesn’t have to exist for non-believers to appreciate some of the finer things to come from religious belief, be it literature, art, music or whatever. Yahweh himself, though, remains as unbelievable and unproven (unprovable) as Zeus… ;)

    Comment by Longrider — January 7, 2007 @ 8:00 pm

  10. “Yahweh doesn’t have to exist for non-believers to appreciate some of the finer things to come from religious belief, be it literature, art, music or whatever”.

    Well, exactly. Why is this such a difficult concept for some believers to get their heads around?

    Comment by Geoff Coupe — January 7, 2007 @ 8:17 pm

  11. Yahweh doesn’t have to exist for non-believers to appreciate….

    No, of course he doesn’t. What I was trying suggest, though, is that there’s a danger of misreading a figurative expression of something that can only be expressed figuratively as a literal statement. Your response to it is secondary, it seems to me — obviously you can be moved by it — or, at least, by aspects of it — without accepting or sharing what the author is trying to communicate; all I meant was the we need to careful not we’re not something on the lines of ‘Macbeth’s all nonsense because it’s a complete travesty of actual chap’s character and anyway I don’t believe in witches’.

    As to the beliefs of the ancient Greeks and Romans, I don’t see how our experience of, say, The Oresteia, can be anything like it was for the original audience, since its social context and meaning is so different now from what it would have been for an Athenian at the City Dionysia in 458 BC).

    Consequently I’m not at all sure that when we say, ‘I don’t believe in Athena’, we’re actually expressing a disbelief in whatever she may have meant to Aeschylus.

    We probably wouldn’t believe in that, either, but I don’t think he necessarily believed, or thought his audience believed, in an actual supernatural lady who had a particular relationship with her brother Apollo, wore a helmet and took a particular interest in the fortunes of the Athenians.

    Comment by Not Saussure — January 7, 2007 @ 9:02 pm

  12. As usual, notsaussure, it’s a pleasure to read your thoughtful and humane posts. Your intelligent tolerance and intellectual honesty, coupled with what seems a genuine desire to understand opposing points of view, makes a refreshing diversion in the blogosphere. Arselicking over.

    Comment by Tin Drummer — January 7, 2007 @ 9:10 pm

  13. Hmm, may have to to forward this to my girlfriendm, it might help her to understand why I’m reluctant to get married in a cathollic church when I’m not a big fan of their particular take on the flying spaghetti monster, but can still know more about their doctrine than pretty much the rest of her Irish Catholic family put together, and am equally prone as yourself to being moved to tears by requiems Mozart and Faure.

    That said, re your original post, I gave up getting involved in any confrontational forums several years ago when the thisislondon forums became nothing but a tedious slanging match, which from what I can see CiF has been more or less from the off.

    Comment by piers — January 8, 2007 @ 1:53 pm

  14. The point about us Irish Catholics is that we know which bits of doctrine we take seriously and which are more … err… guidelines.

    None of my business, but if she wants a church wedding, I wouldn’t argue.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 8, 2007 @ 2:12 pm

  15. Oh, she’ll get her parish wedding, it’s more a case of making sure its understood that in our life together, only after sensible discussion and careful consideration will she get everything she wants ;D

    I thought Southwark Cathedral (the pretty anglican one, not the brick one) as my local church (well, I’ve been in to listen to the singing sometimes) might be a nice spot though.

    Comment by piers — January 8, 2007 @ 3:02 pm

  16. Don’t forget that as far as our lot’s concerned it’ll be no more than a glorified register office ceremony — might be a problem with her more elderly relatives.

    Some years after we’d been married according to the rites of Camden Register Office, my late wife decided she wanted to get things put on a more official basis with the Almighty (and an excuse for a new posh frock and hat, I suspect, though she always denied this). That presented a bit of a problem — not the hat; Mastercard were most understanding — since she’d been married before and never bothered to get the marriage annulled (civil divorces don’t count) so the one true church was out. Since we were quite chummy with the Anglican vicar of the village in which we then lived (I suspect the fact he’d got a lovely old village church was a factor) she decided that God probably wouldn’t be too bothered if He were asked to bless the proceedings by someone of the wrong flavour, we went ahead with that as an acceptable compromise.

    Her elderly mother, who I don’t think had ever entered a Protestant church before, was quite pleasantly surprised after she got over the shock and had been persuaded we weren’t converting; ‘Almost like the real thing,’ she reckoned.

    Best of luck to you both, whatever you decide.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 8, 2007 @ 5:16 pm


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