bookmark_borderA Nasty Christian Apologist Defends the Indefensible

There are many nice Christian apologists out there. To cite just four of several examples, (1) Glenn Miller; (2) Randal Rauser; (3) Trent Horn; and (4) Sean McDowell have both been extremely gracious as dialogue partner (1 & 2) or host (3&4). But there are also some nasty ones who apparently didn’t get the memo about 1 Peter 3:15. About a month ago, I had a run-in on Twitter with one of the nasty ones: Anna Maria Perez (@A_M_Perez). She has roughly 100,000 followers and won’t hesitate to use that fact to put down critics who don’t command an equally large following. Perez describes herself as a “constitutional conservative” who is “Pro 2nd Amendment.” She runs a website devoted to the defense of the (U.S.) Second Amendment right to bear arms, but she also posts on a variety of other topics of interest to conservatives. Her modus operandi is verbal abuse (e.g., name calling, insults, put downs, chronic forgetting, blaming, etc.) and, like any narcissist, she does not handle criticism well–at all. Accordingly, she has zero interest in genuine dialogue with anyone who disagrees with her. People who have the audacity to challenge her statements–the horror!–will find themselves on the receiving end of a spew of insults before being blocked.
I learned all of this the hard way, when I dared to respond to a tweet promoting her October 12, 2015 post, “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist!” Having already written a comprehensive rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s book by the same name, I was already very familiar with the kinds of arguments Geisler and Turek use in their book. So I was disappointed (but not surprised) to find Perez using the same, refuted arguments. When I pointed out the various fallacies in their (and her) arguments, I was called:

  • idiot
  • loon
  • retarded
  • moron
  • stupid
  • ill
  • buffoon

I’m surprised she left out “Village Atheist.”
Each of the tweets containing these insults were “liked” by many of her followers, some of whom piled on with insults of their own. My personal favorite was when one of her followers asked me, “Are you deliberately stupid, or can I sell you a bridge?”
The insults were so over-the-top that I actually found the entire experience rather funny. They were also validating, but not in the way Perez intended. In my experience, when an opponent relies so heavily on personal insults, it is often done to mask some deep feeling of inadequacy, such as not having the evidence or arguments to back up their claims. So when I find myself in the debate equivalent of a “street fight,” I just smile and think to myself, “I just won the debate.” But enough about her insults. Let’s move onto her fallacious arguments, which I will refute over the course of multiple posts.

 

Refutation of Anna Marie Perez

Index | Next

bookmark_borderRandal Rauser’s Latest Book (with a Contribution from Yours Truly)

AtheistNeighborRandal Rauser has written a new book, Is the Atheist My Neighbor? Rethinking Christian Attitudes Towards Atheism. Rauser’s book is a model of philosophical charity. In the book, Rauser argues against Christian stereotypes of atheists, on both empirical and Biblical grounds. For this reason alone, I think all atheists should want this book.
Here is a link to the the book at Amazon:
LINK
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am not a neutral reviewer of this book because I am a contributor to it. Rauser decided to profile me as a case study in how an atheist can offer an intellectual case for atheism without being angry at God or the church. So one of the chapters includes my cumulative case for metaphysical naturalism, including two brand new arguments, followed by a short back-and-forth exchange between Rauser and I about some related issues. (For the avoidance of doubt, this exchange is not in any way a debate about the arguments; rather, this exchange is about Christian stereotypes about atheists.) Speaking of my contribution to the book, Rauser just honored me again tonight with this tweet:


I think Rauser’s contribution alone justifies the cost of the book. But “justifying the cost of the book” doesn’t do it justice. Anyone who is interested in the kinds of things this blog is about should consider Rauser’s book a “must-read.” Run, not walk, to your nearest physical (or virtual) bookseller and get your copy today!

bookmark_borderIf You Think Atheists Should Ridicule Theistic Beliefs, Read This

This is a paper I started writing almost ten years ago, but never finished.

Atheistic Advocacy as a Risk Communication Problem

Jeffery Jay Lowder

 
Abstract. In this paper, I introduce a new way of thinking about atheistic advocacy. In an important sense, atheism is a risk. Therefore, attempts to argue either for the truth of atheism or for the tolerance of atheists and atheist civil rights constitute risk communications. By applying the findings of risk communication scholars to the topic of atheistic advocacy, I recommend specific communication strategies for atheist advocates.

Atheistic advocacy is a controversial subject, even among professed atheists. Atheists disagree over whether atheists should bother to engage in advocacy at all.[1] Furthermore, even among those atheists who believe that atheistic advocacy is valuable, they sharply disagree with one another regarding which advocacy methods are effective and which are not. In this essay, I will say nothing about the first controversy. I do, however, have quite a bit to say about the second.

Atheism as a Risk

In an important sense, atheism is a risk. More precisely, atheistic outreach (including evangelistic atheism), atheist civil rights, and even the related issue of church-state separation are risks. Regardless of how justified (or unjustified) atheists may be, that is almost completely irrelevant to the fact that atheistic outreach and atheist civil rights are risks. (I’ll say more about why in a moment.)
The disagreement over advocacy methods has at least two dimensions. First, some atheists argue that atheist advocates should always be respectful and courteous while advocating atheism,[2] whereas others believe that ridicule are justified.[3] Second, atheists disagree about the dominant approach for advocating atheism. Positions in this debate include focusing on arguments and evidence for atheism,[4] litigation,[5] community service,[6] and humor.[7]

Atheistic Advocacy Is a Form of Risk Communication

If, as I have just argued, atheism is a risk, then it follows that attempts to persuade the general public that atheism is true, not harmful, not anti-morality, and so forth are a type of risk communication. Risk communication is an emerging (or new?) academic discipline; I think we can gain some interesting insights by looking at what the discipline of risk communication has to teach us.
Forget about atheism for a moment and think about other types of risks: nuclear power, parole of violent convicted criminals, Ebola, global warming, autism, vaccinations, building a new railroad close to a suburban housing development, and so forth. Pick one of these or think of a different risk.
Do you have a risk in your mind? Good. Now imagine your job is to convince the general public that they should accept your risk, whatever it is. What is the best way to do that? Should you take a cognitive approach, focusing on evidence and rational argumentation, either as your primary approach or even as your only approach? What about non-cognitive approaches, such as appealing to humor, ridicule, peer pressure, or even contempt?
Let’s put aside the (important) questions of how morality  and etiquette might or should inform our answers. Instead, evaluate your options solely from a cost-benefit benefit. Which strategy is most likely to cause your audience to willingly choose to accept your risk? The question here is not whether one approach or another can change minds; probably all of them can and have changed minds. Rather, the question is, which approach is most likely to be the most effective?
Research in the relatively new academic discipline of risk communication has a lot to say about this. Peter Sandman is widely considered to be one of the top experts on risk communication in the world. Among other things, Sandman is famous for coining the expression, “Risk=Hazard + Outrage.” (This is not intended to be interpreted as a literal mathematical formula).
The basic idea is this. “Hazard” refers to the potential “bad things” which could happen, while “outrage” refers to people’s emotional response to risk. Sandman’s insight is the discovery that most people form their beliefs about risks (and make decisions based on those beliefs) based primarily on the “outrage” side of the equation, not the “hazard” component. Yet most risk managers attempt to do risk communication by focusing on the “hazard” component of risk: presenting evidence that the “bad things” are unlikely to happen or that they aren’t really that bad after all. In other words, most risk managers assume that the general public thinks about risk in the same way that risk managers think about risk.
As Sandman and others have conclusively shown, however, that’s not what happens. People may consider facts relevant to the “hazard” component of risk, but they place equal or much greater weight on the “outrage” component of risk. And Sandman has conveniently identified over twenty factors which influence how people think about risk, which he calls “outrage factors.” Furthermore, he divides those factors into two groups: his top 12 list (what he calls his “A list”) and everything else (which we’ll call the “B list”).
His “A list” may be summarized as follows. (Disclaimer: this summary may be plagiarized directly from something Sandman has written; my source file is garbled. In any case, plagiarized or not, the ideas are all Sandman’s.)
1. Voluntary vs. coerced. The focus of this component is who decides. If I have the right to say “no” to the risk, then it is voluntary for me. If I don’t have the right to say “no,” then it is coerced.
2. Natural vs. unnatural. Here “natural” refers to “nature.” For example, radon gas seeping into the basement of a house would be an example of a “natural” risk.
3. Familiar vs. exotic. People tend to downplay risks they are familiar with. On the flip side, their outrage tends to increase as the number of things they do not know about the risk increases.
4. Not memorable vs. memorable. Memorability refers to how easy it is for you to envision something going wrong. Symbolism is one potential source of memorability.
5. Not dreaded vs. dreaded. A risk is dreaded if it evokes concerns of fear and horror.[8] In general, if the effects of the risk are dreaded, this tends to increase outrage about the risk.
6. Chronic vs. catastrophic. Chronic risks are risks that tend to be spread out over space and time. Catastrophic risks tend to happen in big clumps. (Car crashes are a chronic risk, while airplane crashes constitute a catastrophic risk.)
7. Knowable vs unknowable. Components of knowability include uncertainty, expert disagreement, and detectability. If outrage is already high, unknowability further increases the outrage. More formally, when non-Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) learn that SMEs disagree about the risk, their outrage increases. (Sandman provides the following example: “How dare they expose us to risks they don’t even understand themselves?”) If on the other hand, the outrage is low, unknowability can provide a rationalization for not taking action. (“I’ll start worrying once the experts agree on what the data means.”)
8. Individually controlled vs. controlled by others. This question is not about who decides (that’s the focus of the first component), but about who implements the risk.
9. Fair vs unfair. Are the benefits of the risk going to a different place than the risk? Is the process that led to the risk-benefit distribution fair or unfair?
10. Morally irrelevant vs. morally relevant. Sandman uses the example of a hypothetical chief of police who declares, “The optimal number of molested children for 1994 is 17.” Everyone knows that the chief of police cannot reduce the number of molestations down to zero, but we expect the chief of police to endorse our moral value that any child molestations are unacceptable.
11. Trustworthy sources vs. untrustworthy sources. The “source” of the risk is the person who brings you the risk, or urges you to tolerate it. Betrayal of “trust” generates enormous outrage.
12. Responsive process vs. Unresponsive process. The components of responsiveness include: openness vs. secrecy, apology vs. stonewalling, courtesy vs. discourtesy, sharing vs. confronting community values, and compassion vs dispassion.
While some of the 12 items on Sandman’s list of outrage factors are not applicable to atheism, many of the components of outrage are relevant. Voluntariness, familiarity, dread, and morality are clearly relevant to atheism. For those who were comfortable when atheists were in the closet, atheists coming out of the closet is unfamiliar, beyond their control, horrifying, and morally repugnant. (Indeed, a common worry about atheism is that it is a threat to morality itself!)
Sandman and others have done extensive research on how different risk communication strategies affect outrage (“outrage management“). As the name implies, the goal of “outrage management” is to, well, manage outrage in a helpful way. As Sandman recommends repeatedly throughout his writings, empathy is a key ingredient to any successful outrage management strategy. And while there are varying degrees of ridicule–this routine by George Carlin seems relatively harmless to a biased atheist like me–it seems to me that it’s an uphill battle to both ridicule your audience (or their beliefs) and (at the same time) try to convince them that you’re empathetic to their concerns. I’m not so sure the uphill battle is a risk worth taking.
 
Notes
[1] See, for example, the various articles listed on the Secular Web’s “Atheistic Outreach” page at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/nontheism/atheism/outreach.html
[2] Michael Martin, “Friendly Atheism,” The Secular Web (1996), http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/michael_martin/friendly.html; Richard Carrier, “What Should We Do When Some Theist We Don’t Know Sends Us E-mail?” The Secular Web (1997), http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/howto.html
[3] Tim Madigan, “To Bash Or Not to Bash,” Secular Humanist Bulletin 12 (????):http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/shb/madigan_12_2.html
[4] E.g., The Secular Web, the Council for Secular Humanism, all of the atheistic members of the editorial board of Philo.
[5] E.g., Michael Newdow, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, American Atheists.
[6] The late Sandra Feroe.
[7] Julia Sweeney.
[8] Peter Sandman, “Not in Our Backyard, Section 1” http://www.psandman.com/articles/chapman1.htm

bookmark_borderTheistic and Atheistic Conversation Killers

Both theists and atheists can make statements which are “conversation killers.” Here are two recent examples from the Blogosphere.


On the atheistic side, James Lindsay recently wrote this.

On that basis, and others like it, it is very difficult to see the matter of theism as something to treat seriously as a philosophical object. We shouldn’t. It is a theological object, and theology is only “pseudo-philosophical,” as Carrier puts it, and pseudo-academic, as I outlined above. No one is required to take such a thing seriously or engage its “best” arguments, as if it has any, as if the real contenders haven’t already been dealt with thoroughly and repeatedly, and as if any argument stands up to the simple and straightforward question that’s been waiting for them all along: “Where’s the evidence?”

But because the idea that we should engage any position’s best case is generally true in philosophy proper, and all academic debate, it is an easy value to turn into a false virtue. The principle simply doesn’t apply here because theology is pseudo-academic, though. Misapplying it as a false virtue, a moral value defining a particular kind of thinker, I think, is exactly what apologists for the philosophy of religion are doing, and I think it constitutes a confusing and unproductive avenue in the conversation that should not continue.

Victor Reppert characterizes Lindsay’s position as, “I’m right; you’re an idiot; so let’s shut the discussion down” (see here). Elsewhere, Reppert asks, “What can you say to someone who wants to shut discussion down?” In response, Lindsay clarifies that this is a close but not perfectly summary of his position:

You are very nearly correct, Victor. It’s not, though, that I want to shut this discussion down (how Orwellian). I just want it to draw to its natural conclusion, if a decade (or century) or more late in getting there.

So Lindsay’s position might be better summarized as: “Theism is obviously stupid (false), so let’s stop having serious conversations about it.”


On the other side of philosophical “aisle,” a reader of Victor Reppert’s blog named Ilion wrote something very similar from the theistic side.

“What fellowship has darkness with light?”

*All* God-deniers are intellectually dishonest with respect to their God-denial. Thus, it is as logically impossible to have a “dialogue” with atheists about God, or “religion”, as it is to have one with you over any of the things you choose to be intellectually dishonest about, such as socialized medicine … for you *will not* acknowledge any of the unwlecome (to statists/leftists such as yourself) truths about it.

I have no idea why Ilion brings up socialized medicine in reference to me (or why he calls me a “statist” or “leftist”), since I’ve never written publicly about any of those things. In any case, the conversation killer is obvious. All atheists are “intellectually dishonest” with respect to their God-denial.
In case there was any doubt about whether Ilion intended to make such a sweeping generalization, he removed that doubt in a follow-up reply.

JJL: “So if Linday’s position can be summarized as “I’m right, you’re an idiot,” yours would be, “I’m right, you’re a liar.” Correct?
It has nothing to do with me, nor with whether I am right. It has to do with the fact that you (plural, collective, inclusive) are intellectually dishonest, which is worse than mere lying.

My position is: “You’re intellectually dishonest. Correct that, and then we’ll see whether you have anything worthwhile to say.”


JJL: “If that is truly your position, then I can’t think of why any atheist would want to dialogue with you.

I’m crushed: people who are worse than liars may not want to “dialogue” with me … because I insist upon dropping the intellectual dishonesty first.

bookmark_borderParsons is Mean

Someone named Randal Rauser thinks I am being mean to fundamentalists:
http://randalrauser.com/2013/06/laughing-at-fundamentalists-lessons-from-john-loftus-and-keith-parsons/
I am. I ain’t a Christian. I don’t turn the other cheek or love my enemies or pray for those that say mean things about atheists.
What justifies ridicule? The ridiculous deserves to be ridiculed. Well, we should spare the innocent ridiculousness of those who cannot help it–the genuinely, pathetically dimwitted or uneducated. But pernicious, aggressive ridiculousness by smart, educated people who are attempting to foist their ridiculousness on the rest of us–that richly deserves ridicule. Those who attempt to use the power of the state to cram their fatuous, hateful ideology down the throats of everyone else–by having creationism taught in the public schools, say–are contemptible and fully deserving of contemptuous laughter. I heard Lewis Black do a terrific rant on creationism. Priceless.
The only interesting issue raised in Rauser’s post is how we define “fundamentalist.” Can we do no better than to say, after Alvin Plantinga, that a fundamentalist is a “stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine”? First, as to the “stupid” characterization: It may well be that most stupid people are fundamentalists, but it certainly is not the case that all fundamentalists are stupid. Some are very smart, or at least very clever. It is the clever ones we should ridicule. Chiefly though, it is the doctrine, fundamentalism, that should be ridiculed, not individual fundamentalists. What is fundamentalism? I identify it with the following doctrines/positions:
1) Biblical inerrancy: This is the view that the canonical books of the Protestant Bible (in the “original autographs”) are not only reliable in matters of morals or faith, but are scientifically, historically, and in every way true in every detail and contain no inconsistencies, discrepancies, or error of any sort. Lot’s wife really did turn into a pillar of salt. Sampson really did pull down that temple on the Philistines. There really was an earth-covering flood and an Ark full of animals. The walls of Jericho really did tumble down at the trumpet blast. The snake really did talk to the naked woman in the garden. Balaam’s donkey spoke, too. Jonah really was in the belly of the whale, er, great fish, for three days. The Nile really did turn into blood and the first-born of every Egyptian household was slain. Samuel really did tell Saul to commit genocide on the Amalekites. Elisha really did curse the children in the name of the Lord, and two she-bears mauled forty two of the children. Jesus really is coming back in glory to kick the Antichrist into hell. Really.
2) Extreme social conservatism. Marriage must be between one man and one woman (It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve). In fact, sexual love between a man and a man or a woman and a woman is sinful and morally reprehensible. Organizations should be allowed to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against gays. The Boy Scouts should not admit gays. Abortion is wrong under all circumstances. Even pregnancies due to rape or incest must not be terminated. (Oh, I forgot. Some fundamentalists believe that a woman’s body will shut down and prevent pregnancy by rape). Even contraception is suspect for some fundamentalists. A woman should not have the choice to terminate her pregnancy. In fact, women should mainly be wives and mothers, since that is their Biblically-appointed role. “KInder, Kuche, Kirche (children, cooking, and church)” as the Germans used to say. A wife should accept the authority of her husband and recognize that he is the head of the household. There should be sectarian prayer in the public schools. This country was founded on Christian (i.e. fundamentalist) principles.
3) Young Earth Creationism. The universe was created from six to ten thousand years ago in six literal days, as it says in Genesis. Macroevolution did not occur, and is, in fact, a Satanic lie. The geological record is explained by the Noachian Flood. Humans and the great apes are not related. Dinosaurs were on the Ark with Noah. T. rex was a harmless herbivore before the Fall of Man. There is no evidence for evolution. There are no intermediate fossils. There is no genetic evidence for evolution. Organisms were created of basically the same “kind” they are now. Human languages became diverse at the Tower of Babel. Evolutionary theory is only atheist ideology.
Now, if fundamentalism were only practiced by consenting adults, I might snicker at it in private with friends. But the advocates of such preposterous stuff are very, very aggressive in propagandizing for it f and in trying to get laws passed to impose it on everyone. Therefore, if public ridicule is an effective counter-measure, we need to go for it.

bookmark_borderBlogging the Passive-Aggressive Way

I just happened to go to the Triablogue website. I noticed that Hays dedicated an entire post to his combox exchange with me regarding the failure of the Resurrection as an explanatory hypothesis. I found it interesting  to see how he categorized the post:

It appears that Hays has dedicated an entire blog post category or “label” to “Village Atheist.” Not all of his posts about comments made by atheists seem to be placed into this category, so one can only assume that he is using the label in a way that is consistent with its connotation, as a slur against what he takes to be stupid or unsophisticated atheist arguments.
Too many people on both sides of theist-atheist discourse are verbally abusive. To be clear, no one is perfect. I’ve been guilty of this sort of thing myself. As tempting as it is to respond to Hays in kind, I’m going to take the high road. It would be nice if everyone could elevate the level of the discussion and keep it professional.

bookmark_borderThe Cammels with Hammers Civility Pledge

Daniel Fincke just posted this on his blog. Republishing here with his permission and with my full support.


If you want to take this pledge too, post your signature and your comments and any personal addendums you make to it in the comments section below. Also consider reposting the full pledge and reasons for the pledge on your own blog and/or other social media outlets to make your commitment to civility explicit. Also consider inviting others to do the same. I encourage people to freely republish this document with attribution and with no omissions or amendments to the text. People are of course free to post it and then specify their personal amendments to it or to specify they want to omit pledging agreement to certain parts of it. But I do not want highly similar but amended versions of the document to circulate confused for the original and misattributed to me. Please respect this concern or I may have to protect the document’s integrity with copyright claims.

“THE CAMELS WITH HAMMERS CIVILITY PLEDGE”

by Daniel Fincke

Reasons for the Pledge:

I want to be able to engage in vigorous, rigorous, constructive, and truth-conducive public discussions about both the most philosophically fundamental and the most vitally urgent questions related to beliefs and values.

For truth’s sake and for freedom’s sake, I want no controversial topics to be made taboo in all discussion forums and I want no disputable propositions whatsoever to be shielded from all sincere and thorough rational interrogation. I accept that either my beliefs and values, including those I that myself cherish the most, can prove themselves against vigorous, sincere, rational skepticism and challenge, or that they need to be modified or abandoned.

I want to argue for what I think is true and good without hesitating over concerns that my views are too unpopular or unpleasant, and I want others to feel free to do the same.

I want periodically to publicly reexamine my own beliefs and values for any possible errors they may contain, and to critically examine others’ ideas until I am adequately satisfied with them before feeling like I have to endorse or adopt them.

I even may want the latitude of intellectual honesty to test ugly ideas that neither I nor most others even want to believe. I may want to do this so that we can thoroughly understand exactly why, or whether, such ideas are indeed as false as we would hope, or are as pernicious as we presume. It is important that rational people of good will have well-developed reasons, rather than just dogmatic moral condemnation, with which to answer the false and pernicious ideas of irrational, ill-willed, and bigoted people. This means rational people of good will should at least sometimes open-mindedly explore hypotheses that they or others may find morally or intellectually upsetting, and that they have the room to do this without being demonized.

I realize that a huge obstacle to honest, thoroughgoing, and challenging public inquiries into the rightness of beliefs and values of the most fundamental importance and urgency is our shared natural tendencies to take abstract criticisms personally. I realize another huge obstacle is that most people naturally are tempted to become more dogmatically committed to their existing positions precisely when presented with potentially unsettling counter-arguments. I realize that in most cases these and related problematic tendencies are only exacerbated, rather than alleviated, when we explicitly or implicitly turn abstract intellectual inquiries into interpersonally hostile confrontations.

I also realize that attempts to bully people into agreement with me by taking recourse to interpersonally aggressive treatment are antithetical to a principled commitment to respecting other people’s rationality and freedoms of intellectual conscience. Even where such appeals are successful, they come at a moral cost that should be seen as unacceptable to people committed to reason. I should want to persuade others into genuinely justified agreement with the best arguments and the most fair and relevant emotional appeals, rather than socially, emotionally, politically, or physically coerce them into acquiescence. Outside of the most extreme life and death circumstances, I should not consider the cause of winning people to my side philosophically or politically to be so important that I am willing to treat others abusively.

It is, in the vast majority of cases, unethical to verbally abuse or otherwise attempt to emotionally bully others, no matter how right I might feel myself to be or how cathartic I might find the experience. Self-righteousness is a dangerous, blinding temptation. It leads to hypocritical double-standards, remorseless cruelty, smugness, authoritarianism, and false beliefs held with self-satisfaction. Worst of all, self-righteousness tempts us to become like the hateful people we start out opposing. So I should foreswear and guard against self-righteousness as conscientiously and with as much regular self-examination as possible. I should never consider myself to be so much better or righter than others that I see them as worthy of maltreatment and myself as morally pure enough to mete out their punishments of my own initiative.

I understand also that I am not perfect. I may not have always lived up to the highest standards of civility, compassion, or rationality in the past. I may struggle as much as anyone else to do so in the future. Nonetheless, I resolve to the best of my ability to make the commitments in the pledge below in order to ensure that I am as constructive and ethical a participant in public discussions as possible, and to live as consistently according to my professed belief in the intellectual and moral worth of reason, freedom, and compassion as possible.

The Pledge:

1. I commit that I will engage in all public arguments with a sincere aim of mutual understanding, rather than only persuasion.

I will make being honest, rationally scrupulous, and compassionate my highest priorities. I will conscientiously remain open to new ideas. I will consider the well being and growth of my interlocutors more important than whether they simply agree with me at the end of our exchanges. I am under no obligation to respect false or harmful beliefs or to hold back from expressing my own views or reservations forthrightly. I may even express them with passion and conviction where such are justifiable. Compatible with this, I will always respect my interlocutors as people and their rights to express their own views without personal abuse, even when I find myself riled up by them. I will cut off communications that are counter-productive to others’ well being or my own. I will respect others’ attempts to bow out of debates on particular topics or with me in particular. If I feel that I am in a position where my anger and frustration at the behavior
of others, even entirely legitimate anger and frustration, is making the conversation less capable of constructive progress, I will remove myself and come back only at such time as I can be constructive again.

2. I commit that I will tolerate the existence of people with dissenting ethical, religious, or political views.

I will focus on understanding and appreciating what actual goods my philosophical or political enemies may be mistakenly trying to achieve and what genuinely occurring features of their experience they are inadequately trying to do justice to in their false beliefs. I will try to discern and appreciate what genuinely valuable moral and intellectual principles they intend to stand up for, no matter how wrong I think their ultimate ethical or factual conclusions might be. Wherever possible, I will try to find and affirm their good will, reasonableness, and any other potential sources of common ground, and work from there in order to persuade them of what I take to be their errors. If this proves impossible, I will simply stop engaging them directly and attack their ideas in the abstract, rather than make things acrimoniously personal.

3. I commit that I will always focus first on the merits of other people’s arguments and not disparage them personally for asking unpleasant questions, taking unpleasant positions, or simply disagreeing with me.

I will not assume the worst of all possible motives when people advance theses that I find false, morally repugnant, and/or potentially harmful. I will refute their arguments on their merits. I will discuss with them any harmful real world implications that I think would come from the promulgation or implementation of their ideas. I will not accuse them of wanting to perpetuate evils unless there is specific evidence that their ends are actually so malicious. I will try not to personalize intellectual disputes any more than is absolutely necessary. I will keep any personal fights that erupt limited to as few people as possible rather than incorporate more and more people into them.

When I am having a personality conflict that is making progress in understanding seem impossible, I will drop communications with that person–with or without explanation as seems most potentially constructive. I will not escalate unproductive arguments that are becoming interpersonally acrimonious. I will not participate in ongoing interpersonal feuds between other people but only participate in discussions that stay focused on what is true, what the best principles are, and how such principles may be most fairly and efficiently implemented in the world. I will correct injustices, bad principles, and bad ideas in ways that are maximally productive for changing minds and real world policies while also minimally likely to create or escalate distracting counter-productive interpersonal feuds.

4. When I feel it necessary to call out what I perceive to be the immoral behaviors or harmful attitudes of my interlocutors, I commit that I will do so only using specific charges, capable of substantiation, which they can contest with evidence and argumentation, at least in principle. I will not resort to merely abusive epithets and insult words (like “asshole” or “douchebag”) that hatefully convey fundamental disrespect, rather than criticize with moral precision.

I will refrain from hurling hateful generalized abusive epithets and insults at people. I will refrain from leveling vague, unsubstantiated charges of terribleness at people. I will give them fair opportunities to explain themselves. I will challenge the wrongness of their specific actions or apparent attitudes rather than hastily cast aspersions on their entire character. Before ever making moral accusations, I will civilly warn them that something they do or say strikes me as morally wrong and offensive, and explain to them why.  I will give them a chance to retract, restate, and/or apologize before taking moral offense. I will analyze with self-directed skepticism whether my offense is rooted in a morally justifiable anger at provably unjust treatment, or whether it is just my discomfort with being disagreed with.

I will always seek to maintain positive rapport with those who disagree with me as much as they enable. I will focus my criticisms on people’s ideas first and only if necessary criticize their attitudes, behaviors, or apparent character. I will not demean them fundamentally as a person. I will not uncharitably and hastily leap from specific bad thoughts, attitudes, or actions to wholesale disparagements of their entire character until there is overwhelming evidence that I am dealing with a fundamentally immoral person. And if I am dealing with such a person, I will use any of a wide array of highly specific available words

to make moral charges soberly, constructively, descriptively accurately, and succinctly as possible before cutting off communications with them. And I will not take unnecessary recourse to abusive terms when plenty of civil and accurate words carrying heavy moral force are available to me.

5. I commit that I will go out of my way, if necessary, to remember that members of traditionally marginalized groups and victims of abuse have experiences that I may not have and which I may have to strain to properly weigh and appreciate.

People who have been personally abused or systemically discriminated against in ways that I have not may also be acutely aware of a social power differential with respect to me of which I may be unaware. This may make them feel frustrated and intimidated from speaking frankly, as well as more sensitized to potentially silencing and Othering implications of my language and ideas. I will be as sensitive to this reality as possible and as careful as possible with my language to reduce rather than exacerbate their feelings of social disempowerment. I also will take into account and accommodate the reality that people with high personal stakes in the outcomes of certain debates about values are, quite understandably, more prone to emotional intensity in their arguments and especially likely to bring unique insights that are indispensible to understanding the issue adequately.

Of course none of this means I should feel compelled to surrender my own rational right and need to independently and rigorously assess what anyone says for its truth or goodness. I should not feel compelled to always and unconditionally agree with someone who has an experience or life situation different from my own. And I should not pretend to already fully accept beliefs or values of which I have not yet been satisfyingly convinced. I should also not tolerate normalization of emotional appeals
of the kind that cross the line into bullying. But nonetheless, I will be extra cautious to learn from traditionally marginalized people about what disparately affects them in negative ways and about how to make discourses and other environments more inclusive to them. I will pay close attention to how hostile environments are implicitly created that exclude, silence, or otherwise adversely affect traditionally marginalized people, especially under the aegis of a perniciously false neutrality.

On the other side, I will also be sensitive to preempt counter-productively defensive feelings and reactions of people in traditionally advantaged groups by carefully avoiding even the appearance of prejudicially disparaging them all as malicious oppressors. I will distinguish carefully between those motivated by animus and those who are in the main only passive beneficiaries and unwitting perpetuators of injustices, or biased in unintentional and unexamined ways. When rightly calling out such injustices and prejudices I will frame my criticisms and calibrate my level of antagonism with respect to how generally good or ill willed my interlocutor actually is. I will scrupulously distinguish criticisms of harmful systems from criticisms of individuals. I will criticize harmful behaviors without hastily assuming people have malicious intentions or morally repugnant character. I will always respect others’ rights to disagree with me, regardless of their race, color, creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, abilities, disabilities, sex, and unearned privileges (or lack thereof). I will avoid all disparagement of people based on such core identity-forming traits, whether it be disparagement aimed at members of groups with lesser or greater social power. I will neither flippantly nor seriously disparage people based on such kinds of traits or try to invalidate their experiences, even should I think that they are misinterpreting the significance of their experiences, or even should I believe they are more advantaged than most people and should be able to take harsher treatment on that account.

6. I commit that I will not use any language that I know is offensive to either a subset of a marginalized group or to members of that group at large, for whatever reason.

I will not use racial or ethnic slurs (like “nigger” or “kike”), gendered insults (like “bitch”, “dick”, “cunt”, “slut”), homophobic slurs (like “fag”), or transphobic slurs (like “tranny”). Regardless of my private standards or understandings I have with my friends or customs within my local culture, in public forums I will respect that such terms make at least a noticeable number of members of marginalized groups feel hated and unwelcome. This risks silencing them in unjust ways. I will err on the side of caution and maximum inclusion by removing such words from my public discourse as superfluous, potentially harmful, exclusionary, and counter-productive to my goals of rational persuasion. The English language is huge; I can find countless better words to use.

7. I commit that I will not use any ableist language that disparages people over physical or mental limitations or illnesses.

I will not falsely imply that people are in the main uneducable or incapable of rationality simply because they either disagree with me, have major intellectual blindspots, make huge intellectual errors, or prove generally unlearned in some specific area. This means that I will not call my interlocutors “retarded”, “stupid”, “idiotic”, “deranged”, or similar terms that convey with contemptuous hostility that I believe them beneath reasoning with and beneath treating as an equal, simply on account of what I take to be some major errors or areas of ignorance. All people can learn. All people can teach. Specific intellectual limitations, errors, and/or ignorance of a particular area of knowledge do not amount to “stupidity”.

Calling people stupid is not only usually false and woefully imprecise, but it threatens to hatefully discourage people from learning and to destroy the hope for dialogue with them. It also disrespects the undereducated (many of whom are financially disadvantaged or otherwise socially disadvantaged and disempowered) and makes them justifiably resentful. For some it continues a pattern of abuse suffered from parents, peers, partners, and others in their lives who damaged them during childhood and have harmfully misled them to underestimate their actual intellectual potential. It also irrationally ignores the reality that all of us are regularly victims of cognitive biases and institutionally inculcated deceptions that to a large extent account for their errors. They deserve education, not derision.

My interlocutors and I will both learn more if I try to understand the rationally explicable reasons for their errors and figure out how to most effectively correct them. I will also learn more if I conscientiously try to think up and refute the best arguments for my opponents’ views rather than seize on their arguments’ weaknesses and dismiss them categorically as “stupid”. I can point out the nature of mistakes more precisely, and with better hope of correcting them, if I engage in thinking together with people rather than disparaging and bullying them.

8. I commit that I will always argue in good faith and never “troll” other people. I will respect both safe spaces and debate spaces and the distinctly valuable functions each can potentially serve. I will not disrupt the functioning of either kind of forum.

I will respect that some venues are designed to be safe places for members of marginalized groups or abused people to seek refuge from abuse and certain forms of disagreement that they are, for good reason, not emotionally able to deal with. I will respect that these, and other venues designed
for people with a shared ideological or philosophical disposition, are valuable. It is constructive to have some spaces where likeminded people can work out their views amongst themselves without always having to be distracted by calls for them to defend themselves on fundamental points.

I will not deliberately troll or otherwise attempt to disrupt forums that exclude me on such grounds. If they refuse debates with people of my philosophical views, then I will not try to participate in their venue. On the flipside, if I desire to make a certain conversation or forum, even a public one, into a safe space where some types of arguments are not permitted, I will make that clear as early as possible. And if I am engaged in a debate in a public forum not designated as a safe space, I will accept that not everyone present is going to share my basic beliefs, knowledge base, values, or concerns, and I will not treat them with hostility on account of their disagreement with me about fundamental matters.

Regardless of forum, if I decide to play devil’s advocate in hopes that it will help make a position’s merits clearer to me, I will be upfront about what I am doing so that I do not come off as obstinate or excessively antagonistic or in any other way a disingenuous “troll”. I will desist if others do not want me to play devil’s advocate to them whether because they find it badgering or trivializing of something important to them or for any other reason.

9. I commit that I will apologize when I hurt others’ feelings, even when I do so unintentionally and even when I do not think their hurt feelings are justified.

If I want to defend my actions or contest the moral justifiability of an outraged person’s feelings of offense, I will do so respectfully and always with an aim of mutual understanding. I commit to not treating those who accidentally upset or offend me as though they intentionally did so. I will accept sincere apologies that take adequate responsibility without requiring groveling and total surrender on all points of contention (especially if some matters at stake are distinctly separable from the offense and are rationally disputable). I will foster environments in which people feel comfortable expressing when their feelings are hurt because everyone regularly offers, and receptively takes, constructive criticisms. This happens where criticism is regularly free of hatred, demonization, and implicit or explicit purity tests and threats of ostracism. So I will oppose all such things.

10. I commit that I will hold my allies and myself to the highest standards of civil, good-willed, compassionate, and reason-based argumentation and ethical conduct, regardless of whether our enemies do the same, and regardless of the rectitude of our cause.

I will not defensively interpret sincere criticism from my allies as personal betrayal. I will be as above reproach as possible with respect to all charges of bullying, feuding, escalation, bad faith argumentation, ad hominem tactics, well-poisoning, trolling, marginalization, strawmanning, sock puppetry, tribalism, purity testing, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, classism, ableism, goading, micro-aggressiveness, passive aggressiveness, and personalization of disputes. While not compromising my intellectual conscience for the sake of politeness, I will manage to model a conciliatory and reasonable spirit. While I may advocate forthrightly for ethical debate and treatment of others generally, I will spend as much or more of my energies scrutinizing my own public contributions for ways I can make them more rational, civil, compassionate, and persuasive than I will policing the behaviors of others I encounter.

11. I commit that I will not make accusations of guilt by association.

I will neither assume that one’s association with another person implies agreement with any specific belief, action, or behavior of that person, and nor will I assume that someone’s agreement with another person on a specific point implies agreements on any other specific points. I will hold people accountable only for their own expressed views and not for the views of everyone with whom they associate. I also will not assume total agreement and endorsement of all the ideas in books, thinkers, or links that someone recommends as interesting.

12. I commit that I will not use mockery and sarcasm in ways that try to belittle other people.

I recognize funny and perceptive satire’s indispensible and unique abilities to illumine truths and rationally persuade people. And I feel free to humorously point out apparent absurdities in others’ arguments or beliefs during discussions. But I will draw the line at using humor to personally attack, harass, or silence individuals with whom I am engaged. I will be cautious that my ridicule during discussions is aimed squarely at beliefs and does not have the likely effect of making my interlocutors feel like I am flippantly contemptuous of their reasoning abilities en toto or of their worth as people. In short, I will use humor to challenge and persuade others, rather than to abuse and alienate them.

13. I commit that I will empathetically, impartially, and with reasonable mercy enforce the standards of civility and compassion laid out in this pledge in any venues (including but not limited to: blogs, Facebook pages, subreddits, and discussion forums) where I have moderation powers with sufficient latitude to set and enforce standards.

Even in safe spaces where debates on certain kinds of topics are understandably restricted for people’s well being, I will still adhere to all the rest of the principles of compassion, charity, and civility in arguments here laid out.

Signed,

Daniel Fincke