Tag Archives: Daniel Dennett

The Privileged Immunity of Beliefs, and Why They Don’t Deserve It

Recently I came across a post on social media that a friend had shared.  This friend, by all counts, is a left-leaning liberal and makes no apologies about it.  Most days I agree whole-heartedly with what she posts.  This post, however, had me shaking my head a bit:

By now, everyone on social media has seen the rash of “spirit animal”  memes popping up on their news feeds.  Nowadays, EVERYTHING is considered a “spirit animal”, from real animals to fake animals, real people to fictional people, and even inanimate objects.  I have no dog in the fight and find the whole trend annoying.  But, I bring it up as a spring board for a discussion on the topic that I’ve been thinking about for a while now- the censoring of ideas.

As the post above seems to imply, Mari is wanting to shut down the use of “spirit animal” jokes and references, claiming that spirit animals are “sacred”, part of her “deeply help religious beliefs”, and claiming that non-Natives “do not get one” and should use other words.  Mari isn’t the only one denouncing the use of spirit animals.  Articles have been written claiming that non-Natives shouldn’t claim to have spirit animals, or that only Anishinaabe tribes can use them.  Some have gone so far as to argue that it is casual racism.

Should people stop making light of Native American religions, or is this a case of political correctness going too far?  Let’s delve into this issue.

I’ll start by stating this bluntly:

While people intrinsically deserve respect – beliefs/ideas do not.

No belief, ideology, or thought is above reproach; all ideas needs to be on same level playing field of inquiry.

In the marketplace of ideas*, beliefs of every description are attacked from every angle to test how well they stand up to rigorous scrutiny.  This is how ideas are weeded out to determine how well they match up to our current understanding of reality.  The marketplace is responsible for identifying and eradicating those ideas that are based on deception, ignorance, or error.  No idea is immune from this scrutiny, regardless of long it has been around or how strongly held it may be.

Nowhere will you see this call for “criticism immunity” more clearly then in adherents of religion.  There are many who would loudly argue that religious ideas, traditions, and beliefs are somehow “off limits” from criticism, inquiry, or satire.  Some countries have taken this to the extreme in the form of blasphemy laws – laws limiting the freedom of speech and expression relating to blasphemy, or irreverence toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, or beliefs.  These laws go so far as to give redress to those who feel insulted on account of their religion.  In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, violation of blasphemy laws can be punishable by death.

Here in America, we see this sort of “privileged immunity” come most often from Christians who are quick to cry ‘persecution’ anytime someone attacks, questions, or disrespect their religious beliefs.  Yet, I am also seeing this same sentiment more and more from liberals and atheists.  They are quick to attach labels such as “prejudice”, “racist”, or “phobic” on anyone who points out the harm that religion is causing in the word.  Public figures are often labeled “Islamophobes” for offering up harsh criticism of the religion, a trend that has made many people afraid of speaking out against the atrocities carried out in the name of Islam.  Free-speech fundamentalists will argue that all opinions are deserving of respect and should be given a platform, regardless of how hateful and dangerous they may be.

(RELATED: Why free speech fundamentalists are undermining the case for free speech)

Daniel Dennett famously wrote about this subject in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, in which he argues that religion is in need of scientific analysis so that its nature and future may be better understood.  The “spell” that requires “breaking” is not religious belief itself but the belief that it is off-limits to or beyond scientific inquiry.  He likened religion to a virus in the way that it protects itself from questioning.  “What a fine protective screen this virus provides,” he observes, “permitting it to shed the antibodies of skepticism effortlessly!”  Dennett is confounded over the notion that it is sacrilegious to question your own beliefs and an insult for anyone else to try – “It is commonly supposed that it is entirely exemplary to adopt the moral teachings of one’s own religion without question… I am urging, on the contrary, that anybody who professes that a particular point of moral conviction is not discussable, not debatable, not negotiable, simply because it is the word of God… should be seen to be making it impossible for the rest of us to take their views seriously, excusing themselves from the moral conversation, inadvertently acknowledging that their own views are not conscientiously maintained and deserve no further hearing. […] Those who are religious and believe religion to be the best hope of humankind cannot reasonably expect those of us who are skeptical to refrain from expressing our doubts if they themselves are unwilling to put their convictions under the microscope.”

I want to emphasize a point I mentioned earlier – When it comes to criticism in this context we are talking about ideas and beliefs, not people.   This is a distinction that needs to be understood.  I am advocating the open discourse of the validity of ideas that people hold to, not the people that are holding to them. (This same concept also applies to the often misunderstood idea of tolerance**) I understand that this can be a tricky path to navigate, as many people hold to their beliefs (especially when it comes to religion) so strongly that to them, a jab against the beliefs can feel like a jab to them personally.  However, this should not stop anyone from calling out bad ideas when we see them.  Some people cannot differentiate between their beliefs and their person, which can lead to attempts at manipulating or intimidating detractors into silence.  I’ll give an example.

A few months ago, a friend of mine who recently de-converted from Christianity posted something on social media which pointed out the ineffectiveness of prayer.  Knowing my friend sense of humor, I posted this in the comments section:

My friend found this admittedly crass joke funny, as did some other people.  One person in particular (we’ll call him “Eric”), however, took offense to it.  He went on a lengthy tirade in the comments section, claiming that “devaluing prayer and my beliefs is an insult” and that we were “attacking him emotionally”.  When pushed by others, Eric responded with threats of Hell – “Those who speak against him [Jesus] and don’t accept him as Lord and Savior are condemned to Hell.”  In one of Eric’s final responses, he claimed that he should have, “the freedom to choose [his beliefs] without insult. It is a human right. A constitutional right. It doesn’t matter if you believe, that is your choice, but to mock those that do with jokes… mocks that freedom.”  As a great example of Christian Exceptionalism – Eric is under the opinion that not only should he have the freedom of religion, but also the freedom of not having his religion/beliefs mocked or critiqued in anyway that makes him feel uncomfortable.  I pointed out to Eric that my comments had not been directed at him, nor did I mention him in any way. It was a joke shared with a friend that Eric happened to come across, took offense to, and then demanded that people not insult his “strongly held beliefs”.  The amount of entitlement it takes for someone to demand that no one ever mock or criticize their religious beliefs on social media is not only astounding, but unfortunately all too common.  As a college professor of mine once said, “There’s a difference between an insult taken and an insult given”.  Eric chose to take offense over a joke that wasn’t aimed at him.  He chose to make the joke about him and not about his beliefs.

“If people can’t control their emotions, then they have to start trying to control other’s behaviors” – Robert Skinner

Personal attachment to religious dogmas should also not persuade skeptics from only going after the low-hanging fruits of religion.  I’ve heard many atheists claim that they don’t really have a problem with religion; it’s fundamentalism they take issue with.  Well, I’m not one of those people.  I do have a problem with religion, particularity Christianity.  Because it’s not just it’s more extreme factions that are causing harm.  As one blogger rightfully points out: “Most damage done by religious beliefs doesn’t involve clinic shootings or suicide bombings: it happens in small, unremarked-on ways, in people’s health and finances and schools and sex lives and relationships, but if you could collect all the tears cried over it, you could put out every burning building on earth.”  

(RELATED: The “Not All Like That” Fallacy and why Christian doctrines inevitably leads to bad behaviors) 

 I often hear people argue that it is OK to be critical of ideas, but not acceptable to make jokes about people’s beliefs (like I did above with the joke about prayer and masturbation).  I firmly disagree.  Trying to limit how one criticizes is just another way of trying to claim privileged immunity.  That being said; again, it is important that one is careful to belittle the belief and not the individual.  The line between satire and outright mockery isn’t always a clear one, but one should make efforts to distinguish the two.  James A. Lindsay explains in Everyone is Wrong About God why satire is important in the marketplace of ideas, specifically when it comes to religious “faith” – “The benefits of satire is helping people see the laughable for what it is.  The sacred, rather by definition, is never funny exactly because ‘sacred’ means little more than always being considered with the utmost seriousness.  It breaks down central taboos and weakens bad ideas.  Humor cuts through the vein pomposity of faith deftly and, if the joke is good enough, permanently.  The power of effective satire is to take the puff out of the sails of faith and expose is as a false virtue that people will want to avoid.  It does so by breaking the powerful taboo on profaning the allegedly sacred.  Once sacredness falls away, the belief in question can more easily be reconsidered and, in many cases, revised.”

Internet memes, jokes about “spirit animals”, standup comedy, etc. are good examples of satire used well.  Regardless of which religion is the butt of the joke, “breaking the taboo” of sacredness is a worthy goal.  Supernatural beliefs should not be encouraged nor respected.  By shining a lot on the nonsensical beliefs, it may make people reconsider and hopefully revise their position.

In summary; people have the right to believe in whatever they want, and should have the freedom to express those beliefs.  But this does not mean that those ideas are off limits from scrutiny.  When people claim that you are insulting their “deeply held religious beliefs” or label you as “intolerant” for denouncing racism, this is an attempt to silence opposition and gain some sort of privileged immunity. Why is the open-season on ideas so important?

Because, ideas are everything, and bad ideas can spread, and if left unchecked, can take us down very destructive paths.  I am not okay with people believing whatever comforts them — not those beliefs which have harmful consequences for other people, at any rate.  

People are more important then beliefs.  No exceptions.

The only way to combat bad ideas is with good ideas.  Bad ideas need to be attacked forcefully, ideally at their roots.  For that, we need people willing to stand up and call out bullshit when they see it.  In the “post-fact” society we are living in, this is more important then ever.  Freedom, equality, reason, and scientific inquiry should be fought for at every turn. “I want to believe as many true things as possible, and as few false things as possible”, to quote Matt Dillahunty, and I want others to do the same.  It is imperative to having a functional society that we do so.  Thanks for reading.


*The “Marketplace of Ideas” comes from this video by TheraminTrees on this same topic.  Well worth the watch:

** While we should make every effort to tolerate people who are different then us, we do not need to tolerate the opinions or beliefs shared by said people, nor about said people.  People of different backgrounds, ethnicity, and sexual orientation deserve respect.  However, we do not need to respect the opinions of others about these people.  It is intolerance to pass judgment on people based solely on their skin color or sexual preferences –  it is not intolerance to take a stand against racism and homophobia.



The Inability to Police Their Own

Those who maintain religion, and take steps to make them more attractive, must be help similarly responsible for the harms produced by some of those whom they attract and provide with a cloak of responsibility. – Daniel Dennet 

I may be starting to sound like a broken record on this, but I really can’t stress enough how tired I am of Christians going to great lengths to ignore or distance themselves from other Christians doing very “un-Christ-like” things. 

The tribalistic nature of low religion dictates that there will always be clear boundaries determining who is “in” and who is “out” and that those boundaries will be defended with vigor.  But the way in which this is played out in modern, Christian culture can leave outsiders shaking there heads in disgust at the double standards set by the “gatekeepers” of the tribe.  While coming out in support of gay marriage, believing in Evolution, or questioning the doctrine of hell will surely get you condemned and banished from Christian ranks, other, more “real world” sins seem to be easily dismissed.   These past couple of week have brought some glaring examples of this to the spotlight.  The first being the Duggar family scandal.

The Duggar family, long held up as the model for “Tradition Christian Family Values”, made the news as their oldest son, Josh Duggar, admitted to molesting several underage girls, including his own sisters, when he was a teenager.  The incidents were covered up by his parents and by those close to them, including the police, and have only recently come to light, forcing Josh to make his confession and to resign from the hate-group he was director of, Family Research Counsel.

While mainstream news outlets were quick to pick up on the story, it was largely ignored by Christian news outlets.  As days went on, some people within the Christian ranks did come forward and openly defended, marginalized, rationalized, and ultimately excused this Josh Duggar’s behavior, calling it nothing more than a “mistake” or a “forgivable sin”.  Some of the “defenses” of Josh Duggar’s actions would be laughable if there wasn’t innocent victims involved.  The Duggar family, long-time activists against LGBT rights, has likened trans people to child molesters, and stated that “rape and incest represent heinous crimes and as such should be treated as capital crimes.”  Yet, they seem incapable of taking responsibility for their actions and continue to play the victims.

Proving that the apple really can fall far from the tree, Franklin Graham has become a spokesman for the Evangelical movement on a platform of bigotry, fear-mongering, sexism, and anti-intellectualism.  On any given day, Graham can be found posting inflammatory propaganda on Facebook.  Everything from blasting the Boy Scouts for lifting it’s ban on gay leaders, saying it will “put young, innocent boys at risk“, going on a tirade against public school officials for deciding to teach sexual fluidity and spectrum (calling them “idiots”, “misguided educators”, and accusing them of wanting to “brainwash our children”), claiming that the White House has been “infiltrated by Muslims” who “hate Israel and hate Christians”,  to saying ISIS is “hastening the final Apocalypse”.

Some would like to dismiss Franklin Graham as yet another outspoken minority voice, but he is one of the leading spokesman for Evangelical Christianity, has major political connections, and has the support of hundreds of thousands of Americans.  In other words – he really can’t, and shouldn’t be ignored.  Despite how off-base and hate-filled his views may be however, within his own tribe – he can do no wrong.  You’ll be hard pressed to find any one calling him out on any of his antics, no matter how inflammatory or offensive they are.  The only people I see speaking out against Graham are those on the more Progressive side of Christianity.  In Franklin Graham’s world, his version of Christianity is the only true version of Christianity, and I don’t see anyone challenging him on it.

Also making the rounds this week was this article, written on a blog called Biblical Gender Roles, which are big proponents of Christian Patriarchy, or as it’s more commonly called – Complementarianism.  The article, in a nut-shell, says that while it’s not OK to physically force your wife to have sex, it is OK to pressure her into sex, even if she says no, because her body belongs to the man and “Biblically speaking, there is no such thing as ‘marital rape'”.  And about that whole “saying NO” business – not to worry, there’s a helpful post about how to peer-pressure your wife into sex, regardless of her mood.

I don’t know how big Biblical Gender Roles is or how much press it usually gets, but the article has been making the rounds all over social media and once again, the only people speaking out against it are atheists and progressive Christians.  

Excuse me while I get on my soapbox, but the all too familiar platitudes of, “But, not all Christians are like that!” or “Those people aren’t TRUE Christians” will no longer suffice!  It’s time for all Christians to start taking responsibility for their own!  As Dennett so perfectly puts it:

“It is (not) enough for moderate Christians to avoid giving funds to anti-Semitic organizations within Christianity… That is a start, but there is more work to be done, and it is the unpleasant and even dangerous work of desanctifying the excesses in each tradition from the inside.  Any religious person who is not actively and publicly involved in that effort is shirking a duty – and the fact that you don’t belong to a congregation or denomination that is offending doesn’t excuse you… Until priest and rabbis and imams and their flocks explicitly condemn by name the dangerous individuals and congregations within their ranks, they are all complicit.”

The incidents of Christians behaving badly have been steadily increasing as they continue to loose numbers and influence in our culture, and you can be sure they will only escalate.

It is no longer enough for moderate Christians to simply distance themselves from the toxic ones.  It is no longer enough to dismiss or marginalize bad behaviors.  It is no longer enough for Christian leaders to excuse themselves from the issue because they are “only concerned with their own flock”.  It is no longer enough for congregants to hole up in their sanctuaries and pretend like it’s someone else’s problem.    

To reiterate what Dennett said – Christians, you are shirking your duties.  The fact that those causing harm aren’t a part of your particular tribe doesn’t excuse you.  Until Christians from all denominations take a public stand against the kinds of behaviors talked about here – you are all complicit.