"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Monday, October 31, 2011

Personal Offense

I recently talked to a friend who told me that my blog offended her. I won't say who she was, and I don't think she'd appreciate it if I made that information publicly known either. However, I wanted to write a brief bit about being offended by this blog.

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.

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.
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.

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.


  1. I can't speak to the particulars of your encounter but after reading a few of your posts I have some ideas about why someone might find your blog offensive, if you're interested.

    The easiest reason to point out is cultural. A lot of religious people I grew up with, Mormon friends in Salt Lake City for example, are raised in an authoritarian culture. What the church says is truth and to question it is the worst thing you could ever do. Period.

    Here you are asking questions and by definition that's horrible. How could you question their religion if their religion is always supposed to be right? They can't rationalize it so they just get angry for a reason they themselves don't understand.

    With other religious people it's more like live and let live. I have friends that are religious. We don't discuss religion that much. If it makes them happy why should I care? It's like having a hobby or belonging to a club.

    If they showed up with a bible and started trying to convert me all the time I would probably stop seeing them. It's annoying! But on the other hand if I kept trying to convince them to leave their religion it would be just as wrong. "Why are you trying to take away something that makes me happy?" they would say.

    It seems like you are trying to appeal to reason. Reason has nothing to do with being religious, if it did, no one would believe in it. Perhaps religious people are particularly annoying in your geographical area?

  2. Hey Anastasia!

    Thank you for your response.

    I don't go out of my way to convince people not to be part of their religion. I have a blog that people are free to either read or to ignore, and other than posting blog updates to my facebook (which people are also free to ignore) I have never gone out of my way to tell anyone about it. On the other hand, if someone wants to read my blog, they are free to do so; they're also free to disagree with it, and to voice that disagreement (as I would encourage.)

    In the case that they find something particularly troubling -- something that might make them see me in a different light or which bothers them in some way -- I would like for them to confront me about it. We might not come away agreeing with each other, but maybe we'd come away having a better understanding of each other than we did before. A lot of what I write is about freedom of expression and tolerance for other opinions. But none of that means that ideas, of any kind, should be free from intellectual scrutiny. On the contrary, the only conceivable way that I know of to engage with a subject is to submit it to scrutiny.

    We live in a society in which our decisions affect other people. When those decisions are not based on sound information, the resulting decisions can potentially have disastrous consequences; i.e. praying instead of seeking medical treatment, using homeopathic remedies instead of actual medicine, the degradation of science and mathematics education, the banning of books or of knowledge, voting for politicians who make poor decisions, homophobic policies (such as banning gay marriage or barring gays from the military), voting for politicians who make bad decisions or have platforms inconsistent with the facts, and the list goes on.

    If having a live and let live attitude about religion means never discussing the decisions that people make, or why they make those decisions (including their ideological decisions), then we're not living up to our civil duties. One key civil duty is having a public dialogue about important issues. It's a key American virtue to have public discourse and dissent, and it goes right back to the heart of the philosophies of the founding fathers (and, of course, the Enlightenment era conceptions upon which those philosophies were based.) We're lucky enough to live in a country that was founded not by divine edict but by the rational philosophies of the Enlightenment era, and we should be lucky enough to publicly disagree with each other.

    Now, I would definitely not advocate intolerance or violence against any group of people no matter their beliefs (which is entirely distinct from advocating the public scrutiny of ideas.) All I want to advocate is rational discussion amongst people, an exploration of the public marketplace of ideas. Instead of only talking to those who agree with us, we should be talking specifically to those who disagree.

    You say that reason has nothing to do with being religious, and if it did, no one would be religious. Do you think there are other good reasons to be religious (which don't spring from reason), or would you say that there are no good reasons to be religious?

    To answer your last question, I don't think the religious people I interact with on a daily basis are any particularly more annoying than those living in any other area. I certainly don't have statistics on the annoyingness levels of religious individuals living in southern Virginia more generally, or how those compare to a national (or global) average.