It irks me that there are certain issues which people are afraid to publicly discuss. Religion and politics are forever off topics for most people. They can't seem to discuss them without getting upset, and most don't seem to be able to set their own beloved ideas aside to engage in rational discussion of the issues. But these are some of the most pressing issues of our time; I want a public dialogue on these things, and I want people to think about them and to engage with the material. If my blog causes people to think about these things, even if they disagree with me, or even if they absolutely despise what I have to say, then I feel that I have contributed to the world.
My friend, let's call her F, told me that she feels I use strong language on here, strong enough that even people who agree with me might be offended (or so F said; I have yet to have any of my like minded friends tell me that I actually offended them. Of course, that doesn't mean that I haven't offended them; they might merely be trying to be polite.) Actually, I haven't had that many negative reactions to the blog. I've even had religions friends commend my blog for being informative and well written (particularly the article about arguments in the Bible; a certain Methodist friend of mine told me that she really found it helpful.)
F was the first person to tell me that they were personally offended by my writing; others have told me that they heavily disagreed on an intellectual level (especially the post about whether religious people are delusional) or that they felt my post about Cru was overly reductionistic and highly biased (located here; the person also felt it was inappropriate for a "physics instructor" to study the behaviours of students in this fashion.)
Taking personal offence is certainly understandable. For many religious people, their experiences with their beliefs are emotionally charged. They feel the numinous coursing through them when they participate in their rituals and when they pray (or meditate or whatever other ways they have of interacting with their spiritual or supernatural beliefs.) Various kinds of cultural symbols and icons take on sacred significance for them, and certain kinds of phrases, doctrines, social interactions, or spaces take on a profound significance. They feel themselves lifted out of the despair they imagine they would otherwise have, and into elation. And, to them, atheists like myself are missing a significant element of the human experience; a way of knowing the world that, without which, they can only imagine the world would appear dull and grim, without hope and without meaning. This is one of the reasons that Christians resonate with aphorisms like "God is Love" or "God is the ground of all being".
Of course, I disagree with them. I think there are a multitude of ways of having this component to one's life, and multiple ways to feel significance in the world. A world without God doesn't need to be grim or pale, and rituals don't take on the same sacred value for every person. And while I disagree with the cultural relativism that it implies (I think there are objective truths about the world), ethnographer Wade Davis' words on this subject resonate with me (from his Ted talk):
You know, one of the intense pleasures of travel and one of the delights of ethnographic research is the opportunity to live amongst those who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel their past in the wind, touch it in stones polished by rain, taste it in the bitter leaves of plants. Just to know that Jaguar shamans still journey beyond the Milky Way, or the myths of the Inuit elders still resonate with meaning, or that in the Himalaya, the Buddhists still pursue the breath of the Dharma, is to really remember the central revelation of anthropology, and that is the idea that the world in which we live... does not exist in some absolute sense, but is just one model of reality, the consequence of one particular set of adaptive choices that our lineage made, albeit successfully, many generations ago.But what should someone do who is offended by my bog? How should they interact with me? First of all, I want them to tell me that they were offended. It doesn't hurt me to know that other people are even disgusted by what I have to say, or that they might even find it repulsive.
And of course, we all share the same adaptive imperatives. We're all born. We all bring our children into the world. We go through initiation rites. We have to deal with the inexorable separation of death, so it shouldn't surprise us that we all sing, we all dance, we all have art.
However, if someone merely finds my blog offensive, and cannot tell me why, it's not going to convince me to change my mind. It might be obvious to some people that I shouldn't be writing this; certainly, F thought it was obvious, to the extent that she didn't feel like she even needed to say anything to me about it. Maybe she felt that the offensive nature of this material should be self evident; at least, that's one possibility I can imagine. Or maybe she valued talking to me more so than getting into an argument with me about the material. Or perhaps there was some other reason that I haven't thought of as to why she didn't confront me about it.
But what I really want from people is not whether this bothers them, but whether or not they feel the content is true and why. I want to be criticised, but I want to be criticised in a way that would help me to better understand the world if I am wrong. Merely telling me that something bothers them without telling me why does nothing at all to change my mind. That's not to say that I absolutely will change my mind if you argue or debate with me. Nonetheless, it opens a dialogue that we can have, and it helps us to understand each other a little better. I deeply believe nothing to be beyond criticism, including my own writing.
There's no principle (at least that I know of) which tells us that things which offend people are false. True statements have the potential to offend people just as easily as false ones do. But if I said something which is merely an uncomfortable truth, then it's something that needs to be examined, needs to be considered, and one needs to understand why some are uncomfortable with it. Of course, it's also possible that I have merely chosen an unfortunate set of words so that if I had only said something some other way, no offence would have been taken. That's good information to know too; it's constructive criticism, and it helps me to more effectively convey whatever I'm trying to convey.
For these reasons, I implore anyone reading this to tell me if they disagree with any of my posts (including this one.) Confront me; barrage me with your criticism. But please don't stop at just saying that you disagree or that you are offended. Tell me why, make your case, and try to convince me of your side of the issue. And if you can't do that, ask yourself if what you think is really true.