Monday, September 24, 2007

The problem with "respect"

I don't know how many of you have seen this, but it's done a very good job of setting my teeth on edge. A brief summary, for people too lazy to click on links: A community college professor, teaching a course on western civilization, told his class not to interpret the Bible literally. Students complained, threatened legal action, and he was subsequently fired. The college claims that the incident is not the cause of his firing, but has yet to give any sort of alternative explanation, and the professor himself cannot come up with another possible explanation.

Mind you, he didn't say Christianity was invalid. In fact, he thinks there's a lot of interesting symbolic meaning in many Old Testament stories, which is why he used them in his class. All he did was say that it shouldn't be interpreted literally. Which they shouldn't - obviously, I don't think there's any truth to them whatsoever, but I'm afraid that if you actually believe in a literal Adam and Eve, you're actively deluding yourself in a fairly extreme way. And yet, because of the absolutely ridiculous amount of 'respect' we give religious people in this country, he was fired. What's next, a science professor getting fired because he tells students "No, actually, the earth is not 6000 years old"?

Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Myers - they've all talked at length about this, and it's a huge problem. As long as people put it under the guise of their religion, we're not supposed to criticize it, lest they get offended. Some guy resurrected himself two thousand years ago? Some other guy ascended to heaven on a winged horse? Six thousand years ago, a talking snake caused us to be kicked out of a perfect garden somewhere in the Middle East? Sure, it's your religion, no matter how blatantly ludicrous it sounds!

On the other hand, if you make a perfectly reasonable sounding statement such as 'the size of our national debt is a problem', and you open yourself up to a massive amount of criticism, some of it quite vicious. And this is as it should be. We're adults. We live in a world where, I'm afraid to say, truth is more important than feelings. And healthy arguments can and should be encouraged - if your point of view can't stand up to heavy scrutiny, then you should probably change your mind. I'm reminded of a story - I think it was from Richard Dawkins - of a professor who went to a talk at which one of his pet theories was absolutely and conclusively disproved. At the end of the talk, he went up to the speaker, shook his hand, and said something along the lines of "I wish to thank you, sir! I have been wrong all these years!"

I think this story demonstrates exactly the level of discourse that we, as a society and a species, should aspire to. State your opinions loudly, defend them just as loudly, and when you've been proven wrong, admit it and change your mind.

Sure, it's very hard to do, especially in areas where the facts aren't as conclusive as they often are in science - but it can be done, and the mealy-mouthed 'respect' we give religion runs exactly counter to this ideal.

First, let's look at what the religious people are saying every time they play the 'disrespected' or 'offended' card. They're saying, effectively, that they're not willing to hear someone say that their beliefs are wrong. They're not willing to engage in any sort of dialog about it - they simply refuse, to the point of legal action (in the case of the article that prompted this entry) or violence (in the case of far too many incidents involving Islam) to hear it. And we've built such a shield around religion that the initial response of many otherwise reasonable people is to say "Oh, we're so sorry that you have to hear that" and go and condemn the people who said it - even if they're being threatened with legal action or death (think Rushdie), which is, in my book, a lot worse than being 'offended'.

Again, we are supposedly adults. We live in a world where just wishing things to be true does not make them so. And it is absurd - patently, blatantly absurd - that on this topic, and this topic only, we're not even allowed to say 'you're wrong' without people getting all up in a huff about it. If their beliefs can't stand up to that - if they feel so terribly offended that they feel the need to lash out rather than defend their views - they shouldn't hold them in the first place. And they shouldn't depend on the rest of us to protect them from the inadequacy of their own beliefs.

So shame on the students who threatened legal action over the fact that their western civilization teacher told them to interpret a book in a symbolic manner - a book no different from any other, except that certain people have a disproportional reverence for it. And shame on the administration, for bending over backwards to accommodate one of modern society's stupidest and most flawed conventions.


Megalomania! said...

One of my friends works as a teaching intern in a biology class at a high school in Georgia. (I think you can see where this is going.) One day they were going over evolution, and a student asked why they were studying it. The teacher said something like, "Even though evolution isn't real, we're required by law to teach it."

And the other guy loses his job for suggesting that a book written by (gasp) men be read as (gasp) a book?

Cause that makes sense.

Surika said...

I've been following your blog for quite a while now and, being an atheist myself, I could pretty much agree with your world view. But I often found myself thinking that your valiant attempt here will probably turn out to be rather futile for the fundamentalists you're talking about simply don't
value scientifical proof the same way scientists do. If the parties in a discourse don't have any kind of basis they mutually agree upon there ain't much sense in arguing because it is the nature of an argument that it has to be based on something both sides regard as 'valid'.

A great deal of the fascination a belief has upon its followers is that they actually don't have to ask - that there is a fixed point in a world where 'everything is relative', something that is still true tomorrow, something to actually trust in.
Not to mention that science leaves much to be desired in the giving orientation-in-everyday-life kind of way.
which makes it even harder to convince religious people, because their view is rather ... convenient. And people hardly ever listen to what they don't want to hear, especially if they are more complicated than their solution to the world.

I don't have anything against the concept of God. religious and scientific systems work in themselves, but why people try to mix them up is beyond me. An entity that is neither to proove nor to falsify, that you're not even allowed to question just ain't compatible with a system of thought where every assumption has to be debateble. I mean, a religigous man may see his cold as some kind of punishment, for instance, and noone could hinder him to think of it that way. A biologist, seeing a new sort of influenza mutating out of an old population may find it very hard to accept the results of his research but not to accept the concept of evolution. One can't accept one half of a system while regarding the other half as invalid without any logical reason to do so - at least, if the whole system is based on logic.
As much as a priest won't be very convincing if he said the bible wasn't true, for it being 'the word of God', that's its whole point.

And there again ist the lack of a common argumentational basis. If your definition of 'truth' is entirely differend (for instance, wether it is debatable ore not), you can't expect to convince your opponent, let alone, find a consensus, especially not if both of you don't accept anything between 'true' or 'false' (which might be the only thing both definitions do have in common).

So if these two systems of truth-evaluation can't merge together, it should be perfectly clear from which point of view the discussion is being led. In an institution of higher education the rules of scientific discourse ought to be applied and accepted by the participating parties, because that's pretty much what that institution is for. So I don't see the point of getting all emotional if the rules of religious discourse are being violated in that context.
Vice versa if it is a discussion at, say, the lokal church meeting.

I don't say on should not take into account what 'the other side' has to say but both parties should be able to keep enough of a distance to the subject discussed not to interpret every opinion other than ther own as a personal assault.
I think that, at least, ought to be a 'common base' every participant of the discussion agrees on.

By the way, the eastern part of Germany (where I grew up in, so please excuse my English) is pretty atheistic due to its communistic past, so this whole phenomen is pretty theoretic to me.
But what I hear from the US kind of scares me sometimes ...

Surika said...

... I wonder what kind of "respect" this is supposed to be.

Random Person said...

I may be Presbyterian, but I am also the daughter of two biologists (and an aspiring one myself). I have friends who are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic, and yes, atheist. I have grown up believing both in God and in science. I have always understood the arguments of atheists. Everything you've said is valid.

I am fine with people believing in God. I'm fine with people not believing in God. What bothers me is the rampant unreasonableness found on both sides (mostly the Christians). Evolution is happening. It's pretty obvious. The world is far more than 10,000 years old, and the Old Testament should not be taken literally (the firing of the teacher was quite horrible). God obvously didn't write the Bible himself and hand it to the people at Nicea. People wrote it and people put it together. Of course it's flawed. Much of it was MEANT to be metaphorical. If one thinks that the Bible truly is God's literal word, one is deluding oneself.

I don't try to provide factual arguments for my religion. I find myself arguing against Christians more often than I argue for them, because most of them are rather narrow-minded about their beliefs and have a very limited understanding of science.

I do believe in the resurrection, as unlikely as it sounds. I couldn't tell you why if you asked. Maybe I am merely seeking comfort. Maybe it's because I've grown up believing it. Maybe it's because it's true (though I admit to having no proof whatsoever).

I have always seen science and Christianity as reconcileable, at least up to a point. Creationism is obvously crap, so once you throw that out the window, there are fewer conflicts between the two. Outside of my own parents, I think I've met about three people with whom I share these views. Everyone seems to go to one extreme or the other. While it makes sense for you - you have facts on your side - it doesn't make sense for the fundamental Christians.

I realize I haven't said much that hasn't already been said. I guess I just wanted to point out that there is a middle ground, and that not all religious people are ignorant, blind believers. I agree with nearly everything you've said on this blog. I wanted to point out that a lot of what you've said contradicts the ignorance and stupidity of most religious people more than it contradicts religion itself. Ignorance and stupidity are a much bigger problem than religion itself.

I'm done now.

Tadeu said...

This comment comes from abroad, far away from a country in the south (Brazil) . But deeply valid as thoughts are free and this match exactly what i think . Too bad people do not always understand the truth .