Being Polite and Being Right

It’s been simultaneously amusing and horrifying to read through the comments on my post about the misguided atheist holiday display in Illinois. This is still the Internet after all, and “reading comprehension” is not a highly valued skill, even among subsamples self-selected for their logic and reasoning abilities.

In brief: thinking that atheists shouldn’t be needlessly obnoxious doesn’t make me a “faithiest” or an “accommodationist” or someone without the courage of my convictions. Those would be hard charges to support against someone who wrote this or this or this or this. I just think it’s possible to have convictions without being a jerk about them. “I disagree with you” and “You are a contemptible idiot” are not logically equivalent.

Phil just pointed to a good post by Steve Cumo about precisely the same issue, with “atheism” replaced by “skepticism.” A lot of skeptics/atheists are truly excited and passionate about their worldviews, and that’s unquestionably a good thing. But it can turn into a bad thing if we allow that passion to manifest itself as contempt for everyone who disagrees with us. (For certain worthy targets, sure.) There’s certainly a place for telling jokes, or calling a crackpot a crackpot; being too afraid of stepping on people’s toes is just as bad as stomping on feet for the sheer joy of it. But there’s also a place for letting things slide, living to dispute another day.

We atheists/skeptics have a huge advantage when it comes to reasonable, evidence-based argumentation: we’re right. (Provisionally, with appropriate humble caveats about those aspects of the natural world we don’t yet understand.) We don’t need to stoop to insults to win debates; reality is on our side. And there are many people out there who are willing to listen to logic and evidence, when presented reasonably and in good faith. We should always presume that people who disagree with us are amenable to reasonable discussion, until proven otherwise. (Cf. the Grid of Disputation. See also Dr. Free-Ride.)

That’s very different than “accommodationism,” which holds that science and religion aren’t really in conflict. The problem with accommodationism isn’t that its adherents aren’t sufficiently macho or strident; it’s that they’re wrong. And when respected organizations like the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, or the American Association for the Advancement of Science go on record as claiming that science and religion are completely compatible, as if they were speaking for scientists, that’s unconscionable and should be stopped. They don’t have to go on at great length about how a scientific worldview undermines religious belief, even if it’s true; they can just choose not to say anything at all about religion. That’s not their job.

It’s also wrong to fetishize politeness for its own sake. Some people manage to forfeit the right to be taken seriously or treated politely. But that shouldn’t be the default position. And being polite doesn’t make you more likely to be correct, or vice-versa. And — to keep piling on the caveats — being “polite” doesn’t mean “keeping quiet,” at least as a general principle. We all know people who will resort to a cowardly tactic of claiming to be “offended” when you say something perfectly reasonable with which they happen to disagree. There’s no reason to give into that; but the solution is not to valorize obnoxiousness for its own sake.

The irony is that the pro-obnoxious crowd (obnoxionists?) is ultimately making the same mistake as the accommodationist crowd. Namely: blurring the lines between the truth of a claim and the manner in which the claim is presented. Accommodationists slide from “we can work together, in a spirit of mutual respect, with religious people on issues about which we agree” to “we should pretend that science and religion are compatible.” But obnoxionists tend to slide from “we disagree with those people” to “we should treat those people with contempt.” Neither move is really logically supportable.

A lot of the pro-obnoxiousness sentiment stems from a feeling that atheism is a disrespected minority viewpoint in our culture, and I have some sympathy with that. Atheists should never be ashamed of their beliefs, or afraid to support them vigorously. And — let’s be honest — there’s a certain amount of pleasure to be found in being part of a group where everyone sits around congratulating each other on their superior intellect and reasoning abilities, while deriding their opponents with terms like “superstition” and “brain damage” and “child abuse.” But these are temptations to be avoided, not badges of honor.

Within the self-reinforcing culture of vocal non-believers, it’s gotten to the point where saying that someone is “nice” has become an insult. Let me hereby stake out a brave, contrarian position: in favor of being nice. I think that folks in the reality-based community should be the paragons of reasonableness and even niceness, while not yielding an inch on the correctness of their views. We should be the good guys. We are in possession of some incredible truths about this amazing universe in which we live, and we should be promoting positive messages about the liberating aspects of a life in which human beings are responsible for creating justice and beauty, rather than having them handed to us by supernatural overseers. Remarkably, I think it’s possible to be positive and nice (when appropriate) and say true things at the same time. But maybe that’s just my crazy utopian streak.

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82 Responses to Being Polite and Being Right

  1. Skeptic Tim says:

    Bravo Sean!
    It is long past time that your sentiments were articulated. The entire new atheist movement is in danger of becoming just as tiresome as the creationists; not because the new atheists are wrong, but because of their juvenile behavior.

  2. BrianR says:

    I’m with you Sean … well said. Unfortunately, blog comment threads (and forums) attract obnoxiousness, it’s like a competition. I’ve grown quite tired of it all.

  3. Adam says:

    Well said, and I couldn’t agree with you more. The anonymity of the Internet I think gives some a reason to throw all manners out the window. I’m afraid it is a great mystery what has happened to civil discourse.

  4. Tony says:

    Sean, you illustrate succinctly what keeps me from interacting with other atheists. Being right, for some, is not enough – they must also feel superior.

    As a child, I was raised catholic. Fortunately, the faith didnt stick but some of the better lessons did (and yes, there are good lessons in the bible as well as bad ones). The primary one, and this is one atheists and theists alike should follow a little more closely, is that you should treat others as you would like to be treated. If you start a discussion from an antagonistic position, your going to compel others to take the same tact and dig their heals in similar fashion.

  5. Tom says:

    Extremely well said. This is one of your better posts on the subject: clear, brief, logically ordered and consistent.

  6. Bd says:

    I was glad to see your original post & I expected as much from the comments. I’m also glad to see this post.

    However I’m not certain I follow exactly why you’re “accommodationists” are wrong in the first place (I’m unfamiliar with the word, hence the quotes). I may be wrong here, but it seems that your position is that religion is fundamentally incompatible with science.

    It would seem to me that whether or not a religion is compatible with science would depend on the claims it makes and the interpretations of those claims. For example, Zen Buddhism doesn’t seem to have any creation story or make any claims to explain the physical world through myths. Or in the case when a person interprets the myths of his particular tradition as allegory, not historical fact; this person’s religion does not have to be at odds with science ab initio.

    Of course I agree wholeheartedly that the worldviews of many people who claim a religion are not in accord with physical reality.

    Thanks for your post.

  7. nix says:

    religion: a particular system of faith and worship.

    The definition holds true for Atheism as much as for Religions. To believe you’re right when there can be no right or wrong is faith. And while the evidence for Atheism is strong, it isn’t complete and so there’ll always be room for opposition. To criticize anyone for opposing Atheism, especially in the realm where there can never be strong evidence in either direction, is arrogant. In this sense, Science and religion are not at odds.

    For science to say nothing about religion too easily makes the religious defensive. While science obviously doesn’t attack, evidence against anything can be perceived by those with opposing views as an attack. The last thing science needs is to turn its back on people that question scientific methods based on their belief. It’s important to express that science isn’t trying to attack religion. Attacking religion is an attack on people that we most need to believe in science (because they are the ones making it hard on science). We are at a place where we need religious believers to understand that science is just science and isn’t an attack on anyone’s beliefs. So to acknowledge religion within science is important. It’s unfortunate that we’re at this stage but it’s where we are.

    Another point is that being accepting of others’ beliefs shouldn’t be something religions claim as their own. I believe in being all the good, and more, the religious are (or claim to be) but without the need for religion.

    nada nunca

  8. James Sweet says:

    Disclaimer: I have not read the comments to the previous post.

    I partially agree, though not as strongly. When I read the text of FFRF’s sign in Illinois, I also kind of cringed, especially the part about “myth and superstition”. A message that should be shouted from the rooftops, for sure, but perhaps a little jarring for a holiday display (unless the display is on the roof of a building? hmmm…)

    At the same time, I see where FFRF is going with this, in that they are pushing the boundary as hard as they can to expose the hypocrisy of sanctioned religious messages in public displays. I don’t find FFRF’s sign any more offensive or inappropriate than e.g. “Remember the reason for the season!” Two wrongs don’t make a right, but when framed as a legal test case (because they obviously knew that’s what was going to happen) it makes a little more sense.

    I think reasonable people could differ over the strategic wisdom of FFRF’s choice of language on the sign. I’m not sure how I feel. Where I do agree with you, though, is that in a perfect world, that kind of rudeness would be unnecessary and clearly undesirable.

    Sean, you illustrate succinctly what keeps me from interacting with other atheists. Being right, for some, is not enough – they must also feel superior.

    Heh, Tony, does this also keep you from interacting with other people? In my experience, there’s a healthy proportion of people in all categories who must be superior in addition to being right.

    I’m not trying to attack you here… and you can interact with whomever you like, I just think that’s sort of a piss poor reason to avoid interacting with atheists. For whatever that’s worth…

    Reading some of the other comments, there’s just a little bit too much of “I’m an atheist but”-ism going on here. “I’m an atheist, but not like those ones who are arrogant.” Why do people only feel the need to say this in regard to atheism? “I’m an engineer, but not like those Creationist engineers!” “I’m a dad, but not like those abusive ones!” “I’m a man, but not like those misogynist ones!” heh…

    I just wish that people could be like, “I disagree with the FFRF on this one” without tying it in with some kind of pronouncement on bad atheists.

  9. Chrysoprase says:

    I’d like to second the point that some forms of Buddhism are not at all at odds with science, wich is why Buddhism is the only religion that has ever appealed to me. Of course, some would argue that Zen doesn’t really fit the definition of religion…

    One doesn’t necessarily need to beleive in magic to be spiritual, or need religion to love all of reality, or loose their sense of wonder to be an athiest. A little more understanding, patience and humility from everybody involved can only serve to advance the discussion and could even take some of the negativity out of the internet.

  10. Patrick says:

    Science can only take belief so far. Beyond science you have faith. While the dividing line may move in one direction or another it is never set in stone, as some opinions are.

    If you have faith science doesn’t matter. If you have science, faith doesn’t matter. Neither of these arguments allow for free will or freedom of expression if this is the only context that one side or the other recognizes.

    Atheists should stop trying to decide who is right and who is wrong and accept that there is a difference in opinion which will never be resolved. The faithful should do the same. Most other actions fall into the category of “Bully Tactics” and shouldn’t be accepted by anyone.

  11. MikeR says:


    No, really. Why isn’t stuff blatantly obvious?

    On the one hand, it is unfortunate when someone has a belief system that will not change even in the face of the strongest evidence. On the other hand, being a jerk to people that do not see things the way you do is mostly without benefit. Well, it might make you feel some sort of internal satisfaction, but it will not change their beliefs or provide other tangible benefits. Further, having others view you as a jerk can do you real harm.

    Excellent post!

  12. Gabby says:

    Well, I’m glad I didn’t go to the comments section of the last post.
    I’m with you all the way on this one and I’m a world class smart-ass who isn’t known for being particularly gentle to opponents. My feeling on the sign was that it was needlessly rude. It’s a lot more fun to put up a harmless and polite sign just to have the same hatred and scorn directed at it.
    That’s when the difference in approach is easiest for the fence-sitters to see. We can’t help but come off as the more reasonable, even to many on the other side.

  13. Tsuken says:

    Great post. I would say that, as I agree entirely 😉 and as it happens wrote something along similar lines just the other day. Being rude and offensive 1. diminishes us personally and as a group, and 2. leads to being ignored (who would listen to a group of people calling them a fool/stupid/irrational?)

  14. costanza says:

    To quote Winston Churchill, “If you must kill a man, it costs you nothing to be polite.”

  15. DrBobUK says:

    Excellent. I’m heartened to read this post. Couldn’t agree more.

  16. joel rice says:

    Sean: it would be nice if you were specific about what you are right about !
    Religion has never been about physics and biology, and pretending that it is
    so one can complain about the Bible is just to set up a straw man. Most people
    are more concerned that their children grow up to be decent, and that morality
    is an issue, and perceive atheism as undermining the basis of morality. So, you
    are right that the earth is older than 6000 years, but it is not relevant to what
    most people care about. Furthermore, to argue that religion is not evidence based
    is to disregard history – people give up on religions that do not work. The obvious
    scientific problem is doing controlled experiments on human beings. If we do not
    get cranked up about Poetry and Art – why get cranked up about Religion ?

  17. piscator says:

    I find some of what gets written here a bit snotty-nosed but this time it is spot on.(*) This is well written and advocates a truth that bears repeating: civility in debate and respect for those who disagree with you is a prerequisite for convincing them of your viewpoint.

    `The man converted against his will
    Remains of his opinion still’

    (*) mostly, our host alas remains in error on all the important issues.

  18. amphiox says:

    The foundational assumption of science is that reality follows a set of rules, and that the nature of these rules can be determined by observing how reality works.

    As such the existence of any supernatural causative agent, of any kind, is incompatible with science, for the simple fact that if such supernatural agents did exist, science will not work. The laws of nature will not be consistent if it is possible for an agency outside of nature to influence them, and if the laws are not consistent, they cannot be investigated with the scientific method as there will be no way to reliably replicate any results. This fundamental incompatibility is practical rather than philosophical.

    Science has no problem with superhuman causative agencies, or such agencies with will and intent, or even the possibility of such agencies not being bound by the same set of rules that govern the rest of nature (or other such agencies), but such agencies must still be bound by some set of rules, whatever they might be, and if they are bound by rules, then the scientific method is capable of investigating what those rules are, and by definition, the agency in question is natural, not supernatural.

    It is the insistence by religion that their causative agencies of choice must be supernatural that make them incompatible with science.

  19. uncle sam says:

    Well, I don’t agree with the framing of the issue here when it comes to ultimate questions, since whether there’s something more fundamental (even maybe “mind”-like) behind the existence of the universe is debatable. For example, there being one specific example of a world violates logical symmetry about actualizing of possible worlds, yet if you go the route of Tegmark there are other problems (of e.g. Bayesian expectations.)

    As for culture and society: I was revolted by Brit Hume’s suggestion that Tiger Woods should convert to Christianity so he can be forgiven. What prejudice, on a supposedly “legitimate news” network like Faux. It seems this references a popular right-wing scam: do whatever you want, then ask for forgiveness and it’s OK later. No accountability, right?

  20. Gordon says:

    What does it mean for religion “to work”? You mean fool enough people most of the time?
    You mean create a moral framework useful to society, though based on “white lies”?
    As long as religions egregiously insist on TRUTH, adherence, Hell for nonbelievers,
    inculcating children, then it is actually hard to condemn those atheists for being “rude”.
    How would you feel if the Scientologists rounded up all the children and told them they had
    alien souls inside them that needed to be cleansed? Sean, it is time, particularly in the US, where the need is greatest, to take a stand. Yes, I do not like rudeness, but I dislike religious
    lies and what they do to corrupt society even more; and, yes, I do think you are wimping out.

  21. Giotis says:

    The majority of atheists proclaim their atheism not because they think the world would be a better place without faith. If this was their motive I would sympathize.

    They brag about their atheism to denote their intellectual superiority upon other people. This is obvious by the arrogant way they advertise this atheism. They think that by provoking other people they will stand out from the crowd. Their fanaticism is childish and is really a cry for attention.

    Of course there are serious atheists too, whithout such complex, who really think that the world would be a better place without faith but I think they are the minority.

  22. George says:

    “We should be the good guys. ”

    Let’s not forget that there are fellow freethinkers on the religious side who are struggling to be a part of the polite “good guys” too, freethinkers who are trying to engage the other side in mutual dialogue. Maybe you all will convince us of “reality”, maybe we’ll convince you, maybe we’ll all walk away just having learn something about each other. But let’s not pretend that only atheists can be the good guys, however right or wrong.

  23. Cara says:

    To quote Winston Churchill, “If you must kill a man, it costs you nothing to be polite.”

    Disagreeing with someone isn’t “killing” them, for one thing. And being pointlessly polite sometimes costs a person their integrity. There’s no reason to be polite to someone who’s doing you harm.

    For example, most religion (as it’s currently practiced) is gleefully misogynistic. When the goal of these religions is to impose their misogyny legislatively, why should anyone be required to be polite when saying so?

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  25. Ananth says:

    Great articulation Sean. Couldn’t agree more with your statements.

    I will foist your concluding remarks on those who are caught into the attitude of “I claim the right to mock you and feel superior since I believe you are wrong”

    The size of our knowledge is dwarfed by the size of our ignorance in most scientific fields. Consequently, the best practitioners have developed an innate sense of humility and tolerance for ignorant men. Those who lack that skill, sadden me.