Causing Offence – The Young Atheist’s Handbook

Here’s another (irregularly published) post inspired by Alom Shaha’s outstanding ‘Young Atheist’s Handbook’.

I hope that these will help a few to consider donating to the campaign to get copies of the book in all English and Welsh secondary schools, the website for which can be found here: http://yah4schools.org.uk/

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Hair Trigger

Picture courtesy of http://www.worth1000.com/contests/9726/visual-puns-3, used without permission.


“While I don’t condone the behaviour of ‘dick atheists’, I can empathise with their frustrations. I’d like to think I’m not one, but I’m not prepared… to compromise my intellectual integrity to avoid causing offence. And I will not tell my students lies about the world just because it might be what their religious parents would like me to do.”  – Alom Shaha, The Young Atheist’s Handbook

I strongly feel, as I have a lot lot of reason to assume Alom does, that the teaching of science to children owes no censorship of its core ideas and historic developments to the chance of religious offence. Science is, and likely always will be, the best method we have of comprehending reality – and children have a right to know.

However, as I’m sure each and every reader is aware, there are some who feel that a parent’s right to deny their children a decent education overrides this. Allow me to offend them:

Home-schooling a child, for example, with extremely conservative creationist material (like the infamous ‘Accelerated Christian Education’ stimulus Jonny Scaramanga lived through and now writes about over at ‘Leaving Fundamentalism‘) not only infringes upon what I feel to be their own human right to a decent education (and exposure to information), but has the potential to harm both their mental health and even job prospects.

When everyone at University (with vastly superior qualifications) is doomed for hell in your eyes it can get pretty lonely. And when ‘evolution’ is a swear-word, it’s very hard to be a biologist.

Tell this to a well-meaning fundamentalist Christian parent and you won’t get very far though. There’s a time and place for (often misrepresented) ‘firebrand Atheism’, and the issue of education – as it deals with the sensitivities of parents – may need to be approached a tad more carefully than simply telling people they may be ruining their children’s lives.

But, and this is very important to reiterate time and time again, the possibility of offending is alone no reason to keep quiet. Some set their ‘what offends me’ lower limits so sensitively that the very concept of free speech altogether would be threatened if their inability to accept criticism were taken seriously… Only that is often is.

Rampant in countries such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, ‘blasphemy’ charges are all to liberally handed out for such petty offences as *allegedly* burning pages of the Qur’an or *allegedly* insulting the  prophet Muhammad – often with severe physical punishments as the first port of call. The bottom line, from the point of view of secular ethics and Humanism, is that no matter how sacredly millions hold notions of a long dead paedophile, personal offence does not warrant violence towards anyone exercising their deserved freedom of expression (especially when it’s reasonable, but even when it’s not).

(And yes, that was meant to be provocative to make a small point.)

I recognise that, in many cases, it’s hardly productive, as it may be to tell a parent they’re doing it wrong, to speak with such intentional confrontational passion. I don’t consider myself to be a so-called ‘dick Atheist’, but there is a balance all of us must draw between what’s seen as ‘politically correct’ (I use the term loosely) and our outward sincerity. That said, I see no reason to pick fights where they need not be fought – and so, for example, I wouldn’t seek out a Muslim friend just to criticise Muhammad in front of them. In Islam’s case, like many other faiths (but certainly more so), my fight, for the sake of the victims, is with the religion’s numerous cancerous teachings and the fundamentalists who seek to impose them on the world. Not Muslims.

Of course, if the topic comes up in conversation I will speak honestly – but I see no need to use language reserved for the likes of the Pope when in the company of friends.

Which, even when directed solely at ideas themselves, still sets people off. Perhaps on the smallest of hair-triggers too – which, while it can be annoying (to say the least), is fine. When I say/write something publicly, everyone who comes into contact with it has the right to legitimately and intellectually criticise it. The only place a thought I have is safe from judgement is in my own brain, and rightly so.

I just wish that others would feel the same, because it’s funny how often something like this happens in public discussion (especially in America):

Person A: I think that black people are inferior.

Person B: That’s terrible! I think you’re wrong, and a bigot.

Person A: I CAN SAY WHAT I WANT! I HAVE THE RIGHT TO ‘FREEDOM OF SPEECH’ AND YOU CAN’T TELL ME OTHERWISE – I’M NOT A BIGOT!!!

And they never see the irony…

I think the point I’m trying to make (albeit in an unnecessarily roundabout way) is that it’s perfectly fine to be occasionally labelled an arrogant, offensive, patronising ‘dick Atheist’ because if you’re vocal about it at all there’s bound to be someone who disagrees with you passionately and lazily enough  – at even the smallest detail  – to throw the supposed insult your way. All you should be concerned about is trying to prove them wrong in day-toady life by being anything but… If it worries you.

Carnun :P

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The ‘Young Atheist’s Handbook 4 Schools’ campaign: http://yah4schools.org.uk

4 thoughts on “Causing Offence – The Young Atheist’s Handbook

  1. Ah yes, the tone moderators busy at work, usually offered by those who begin with the infamous, “I’m an atheist, but…,” or “I’m an agnostic, but…”, and want to appear more reasonable and tolerant (and worth listening to) than those willing to respect reality more than incompatible beliefs held about it.

    On Jonny’s site, for example, I was recently criticized by him for my tone when speaking critically as a professional educator about another ‘educator’ who enrolled her child in ACE and ABB until Grade 8, mysteriously unaware of not just its potential but actual adverse affect until after this final year and then excused for it as if it were some reasonable but failed experiment.

    Not gunna fly. It’s bullshit.

    Jonny assumed – like many other reasonable people – that knowledge-based confrontation and knowledge-based accusation are poor methods to sway those who are persuadable. This assumption has been proven wrong time and again (by the thousands if Convert’s Corner and the Clergy Project and many other self-reported deconversions are anything to go by), yet the tone meme continues to be championed by those who really should know better by now.

    New Atheists in particular are widely vilified for not tolerating bullshit in the name of religion in the public domain but when we look more closely (after insisting on evidence) at the particulars of examples held to be supposedly typical of poor tone and rudeness (conveniently misrepresented and acceptably so by the tone moderators to be labeled as ‘strident’ and militant’), we almost always find are reasonable, well expressed positions based on knowledge. Assuredly, what we rarely find are these same self-appointed tone moderators offering any equivalent condemnation and vilification of those who try to spread the bullshit, and who are then forgiven so easily by these moderators to take such offense when called on their actions by reasonable people.

    • How I’d respond to that [and sorry I'm late!], plainly and simply, is that as a ‘movement’ we need ‘good cops’ and ‘bad’. Some people respond amazingly to scathing attacks from comedians such as the late George Carlin, and you’ll get better results from others by seducing them will the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson (who I’m sure has been called ‘militant’ in the past too).

      What I think I’m trying to say is that Jonny plays a sincere, productive role online, and so do people like you or me (though I certainly flip-flop in tone depending on mood) – but I assure you, if we were to meet and chat in person, we’d really have very little to disagree upon regarding actual opinion towards these things. We’d each sigh, we’d each swear…

      And now I’m rambling. I hope you can interpret it, ha.

      I always appreciate your feedback mate, thank you :)
      Carnun :P

      • Without question, Jonny’s voice is an important one because it is informed by knowledge about ACE. This knowledge is what makes his voice sincere and productive. On that we are in agreement.

        But I find it disappointing that so many voices like his then feel they are in an entitled position under the guise of ‘moderator’ to favour the tone deaf religios as too delicate and brittle to withstand honest and reasonable criticism; instead, other knowledge-based voices are too often deemed by zealous moderators not to be, as you say so well, seductive enough. I’m not a fan of seduction in changing minds; I find it an offensive form of manipulation that is all about context rather than content. I’m a fan of content, and the better informed with knowledge that is, the better. That way people can change minds because of compelling reasons informed by knowledge (that I’ve simply passed along in the form I find most suitable) and not because I’ve seduced them by oh-so-careful tone and faux-respect of their ill-informed opinions. I respect people too much to do that and assume that if someone changes their mind or finds reasoned argument beneficial in their decision making process enough to influence it, then the change in mind is owned wholly and fully by the person courageous enough to be willing to do that. Not all people are. (Don’t blame me the teacher, I tell students of all ages, if they get 100% on some math test; that result is their own fault.)

        So if I can facilitate the learning process, so much the better, but it isn’t my job to pronounce what tone must be used by other facilitators and decide which is and is not appropriate – the listener will decide that (and I agree with you that all kinds help promote the central message); the benchmark I do insist on for my and other opinionated offerings is one of being informed, of using knowledge, and that – not tone – is the required content to inform best practices in my own professional field.

      • Wait… Forgive me, but is your central problem here being asked by Jonny to ‘tone it down’ (or however it was phrased) on his blog? O.o

        The position I take on the tone/knowledge issue is this though: so long as the knowledge is there – and it reaches people – I care little for tone.

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