Effectively Criticizing Religious Belief: Punching Up and Other Rules of Thumb

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For most of my adult life, as short as that’s been, I’ve been thinking about how best to engage with religious believers. Discussions and arguments often seem as if they’re little more than intellectual shadow boxing—we lay out our practiced arguments, talk past our opponent, and take cheap shots to let our side know how committed we are to the team (while the other side does the same). Debates and criticism seem to be mainly focused on performance, as if there is a victory to be won. A look at Reddit’s atheism forum, for example, doesn’t inspire much confidence that the community is aimed at finding the truth, rather than feeling smarter at the expense of believers.


In a sense, religious criticism isn’t special because all criticism is hard. Imagine how obnoxious it can be to have your grammar corrected on the Internet, let alone at a party. But religion can be particularly difficult to discuss since it’s a topic that is deeply personal. Rarely are our senses of identity tied to whether or not we end sentences with prepositions.

There are certain clichés about respect that are often cited as accepted wisdom, but I’m not convinced that they adequately address the issue. The most common is usually stated as such: “believers deserve respect, not ideas.” While this may be true in principle, in practice it is not nearly so simple (the close formal similarity to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” which we rightfully reject, should raise red flags). Complications arise when something is closely tied to our identity—be it our family, our religion, our race, our sexual orientation, and so on—and it’s hard to tarnish that feature while being respectful to the person who cares about it. I can’t trash my friend’s hometown or favorite band while acting as if I’m respecting him, just as a preacher can’t claim to love or respect my gay friend while preaching that his expression of love is an abomination. Religious identities are no less core or salient.

This brings up an obvious tension: religious believers and institutions perpetrate legitimate harms that deserve condemnation. But we cannot assume that any comments, so long as they’re directed at an idea or religion, cannot be harmful to believers. We have to think carefully about what the goal of criticism is, and how to best go about it.  I propose that the concept of “punching up” is useful here.

In humor, “punching up” is the idea that you should try to tackle the powerful, corrupt, and oppressive with your jokes. Making fun of a homeless man is “punching down,” but mocking greed and the callousness people take towards the homeless is “punching up.” The target is more proper, and the criticism and mockery feel less cruel. It’s much easier to respect a believer when we’re punching up than when we’re punching down at them.

For example, I’ve never had any problem with someone criticizing the Catholic Church’s cover-ups of child abuse, or how Mother Theresa treated the poor. Yet we can do that without needlessly ridiculing our Catholic neighbors, let alone with contempt. This is particularly difficult and important when it comes to a religion like Islam, where religious groups abroad commit so much harm, yet Muslims within our country are often the victims of ugly prejudice. Compassionate criticism is mindful of the latter, without ignoring the former. Thus we ought to tread lightly: people can be remarkably talented at rationalizing their cruelties. It’s worth keeping in mind that whatever progress atheists make as a group will be along with, not at the expense of, other religious minorities.

Because conversations like this are often misconstrued, I feel I should back up and lay out a few caveats. Meta-discussions about how to best criticize tend to be dismissed with the label “tone-trolling,” but this has always struck me as a way of derailing or avoiding criticism. Tone-trolling is problematic when it’s used to tell an oppressed group how to handle their oppression better. The analogy I often hear is that, when someone is stepping on your foot and you ask them to get off, they don’t get to respond “you didn’t ask nicely enough.” That said, insofar as atheists are stepped on by believers, it’s not simply because believers have some false beliefs. While no one I know would tell ex-Muslims in Pakistan how to go about their atheism, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to tell atheists here to be mindful of how Muslims might be oppressed in the United States.  

It’s also worth noting that we can’t always avoid offending everyone. Sometimes people are offended by the mere existence of atheists. Yet we shouldn’t therefore believe that gives carte blanche to be as offensive as we’d like. All else equal, we ought to avoid what offense we can.

With that aside, I’ve spent a lot of my time talking with the religious—through personal friendships, interfaith events, and the blog I write for, NonProphet Status—and I think I’ve settled on a few general rules of thumb that seem to make criticism better received, less personal, and more respectful.

During my first semester as an undergraduate, I approached a table offering free books. A ministry on campus was giving away copies of the Bible, something by Francis Collins, a few softcovers by C.S. Lewis, and The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. I chatted with a young minister, a kind man with a sincere grin and floppy brown hair. After he asked me about my religious background (I was honest), he offered a copy of the Strobel book and Mere Christianity by Lewis. We exchanged email addresses and, later that week, grabbed coffee.

He and I met nearly every week for the four years I was an undergrad. We didn’t always talk about religion—often we’d just chat about my classes, video games I was playing, or our families (he had his first child soon after I met him and my brother came in as a transfer student during my Junior year)—but our conversations about religion were remarkably productive. Completely independent of the kindness and friendship he showed me, our relationship was extremely intellectually rewarding.

David Hume has famously said that “truth springs from argument amongst friends,” and I think there’s a lot of truth to that statement. There are a few things that happen when you talk with a friend. First, there’s a level of respect and sincerity given and received. You know that you both are taking care to address each other seriously and honestly, while getting at the truth. There’s no fun in “winning” an argument with a friend (otherwise you’re not too likely to keep that friend for long). As a result, counterproductive and awful language gets dropped (like the phrase “invisible sky-daddy” to refer to God, which is a particular pet peeve of mine since it does little more than convince all listeners that the speaker is childish and incapable of seriously addressing anyone’s real beliefs). Thus debates take on a more charitable character.  

You also have to be appropriately specific: if you say that Christianity is sexist, and your friend practices a form of Christianity that isn’t, then there is a discrepancy you need to address. Is it the Bible that is sexist? Or just certain passages? Are they being interpreted in the same ways? Suddenly the conversation gets more productive and detached from a facet of their core identity.

Of course, it’s not always possible (or even desirable) to be friends with every believer we argue with. But we can apply some of what we learn about effective discussion between friends to discussions with strangers, starting with assuming a level of mutual respect. Unless someone has acted otherwise, it’s most productive to treat them as if they are arguing from good faith. If they are hostile or aggressive then things gets much thornier. How to respond to that probably depends more on the strength of your resolve than anything else.

The most important takeaway, though, is to be specific. No religion is a monolith, and they’re all as varied as the people who practice them. The Islam practiced in Iran is very different than the Islam practiced in Minnesota, and our language ought to reflect this (though this is much less an issue with Christianity, as we shift between denominations easily). I occasionally hear various sorts of essentialist arguments where it’s claimed that religions just are their holy books. That seems obviously wrong to me: no one would say that Christianity is anti-fig because Jesus cursed a fig-tree in Mark, and no one would say that a pro-fig Christian isn’t even really Christian because of their position on figs. I don’t see why we ought to treat passages about homosexuality any different.

A lot of people care deeply about whether their religion is anti-gay, but they’re less attached to whether a specific part of the Bible might be anti-gay. This helps lower the stakes and increase the odds of a productive conversation. Even a gay Christian can talk with you about Leviticus and address why it’s a problem, or why they think that passage might be interpreted differently or otherwise ignored. They might not be so open to a broader and sloppier attack.

Related to the topic of keeping it specific, it’s important not to treat all members of a certain religions as if they’re interchangeable. We saw this recently with the FEMEN protesters who demonstrated outside of mosques across the world, from San Francisco to Paris, after activist Amina Tyler was detained. I should make clear that I believe FEMEN was undeniably on the right side of this issue. Yet I find it strange to treat the Muslims in your neighborhood as an appropriate proxy for the Tunisian radicals who abused Amina Tyler. Imagine that demonstrators in crude Hasidic garb picketed outside of a reform synagogue in LA to protest the Orthodox Jewish communities covering up sex-abuse in New York City. That would be one of the easiest press releases the Anti-Defamation League would ever have to write. The targets of responsible criticism and protest ought to be the people responsible for what we’re protesting and criticizing.

Keeping all of these rules of thumb in mind—punching up, taking interlocutors seriously while treating them with respect, and keeping criticism specific and aimed at the people and institutions responsible—I think our religious discussions will become ultimately more productive. Though I never convinced my friend that God didn’t exist (and he never convinced me to accept Jesus into my heart), we were able to build a strong friendship that didn’t tiptoe around each other’s beliefs. We addressed each other as unique people with unique views, rather than stock-figures to debate with. I learned more about what Christians really believe and that many arguments I used to think were persuasive fail, and he learned how atheists take issues of ethics and value seriously independent of God. Though neither of us “won” the argument, we nonetheless won by getting closer to the truth, together.  

 

Vlad Chituc is a Research Associate at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. He graduated in 2012 from Yale University with a B.S. in psychology. As an undergraduate, he was the president of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale, now the Yale Humanist Society. He lives with his dog and some friends in Durham, NC. You can read more of his writing at nonprophetstatus.com

Written By: Vlad Chituc
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19 COMMENTS

  1. I have been following and talking to Chituc for some time. Although we disagree about much, I’m very interested in the ‘interfaith’ approach he describes. Although I have seen such interfaith work described as accommodationist, I don’t see it that way. The point is for people of different belief systems and none to get to know each other as people without any compromise in beliefs. Part of that is to recognise that people are a lot more than their culture or faith, and also that a culture and a faith can vary hugely across the world. I see so much in the way of assertions of what Muslims must belief, what Christians must believe, what atheists must believe instead of the rational approach which is actually ask them what to believe. I don’t see this as respecting faith or respecting religion, but treating fellow human beings as the complex messy people we all are. I remain what some might see as a ‘fundamentalist’ atheist, with the firmest of convictions that gods do not exist, and yet I see no conflict between this and working with people of faith who believe like I do in human rights, equality, separation of church and state to make things better for us all.

    • In reply to #1 by Steve Zara:

      I see so much in the way of assertions of what Muslims must belief, what Christians must believe,

      This does seem more than a little Aspie. It certainly irritates the heck out of me and must delight the harder line clerics, doing their job for them.

      Beliefs are surely mutable day by day. An intellectual change can happen within a moment with the the apprehension of a key fact. An emotional change about a system of beliefs, however, must take all of our earlier selves, our judgments, our values with us whilst preserving our sense of self to maintain ownership of our new thoughts.

      People need space and time to change. They don’t need more clerics ushering them back. Its almost like we think these religions had some supernatural powers rather than be whatever made up shit people want them to be.

      • In reply to #2 by phil rimmer:

        An emotional change about a system of beliefs, however, must take all of our earlier selves, our judgments, our values with us whilst preserving our sense of self to maintain ownership of our new thoughts.

        The self is remarkably resilient! Give me ten sessions with a patient, fewer if they allow me to administer drugs.

  2. Though I never convinced my friend that God didn’t exist (and he never convinced me to accept Jesus into my heart), we were able to build a strong friendship that didn’t tiptoe around each other’s beliefs.

    I suppose that’s nice for you and all, but since you have so far “met nearly every week for four years” it doesn’t seem very effective.

  3. In reply to #6 by Smill:

    In reply to Peter Grant, post 5. Your comment reminds me of a teacher I once overheard discussing classroom ‘discipline’. He commented, ‘When I say jump, they ask ‘How High?’. Appalling.

    I’ve never actually met a teacher worth jumping for, but I have read more than a few.

  4. In reply to #4 by Smill:

    In reply to Peter Grinch, post 3. I wonder how that young minister would have fared if he’d met up with you every week for four years. I guess he got lucky that day.

    My friends like me. They seem to consider themselves lucky, and atheist!

  5. This article has many parallels to my walks with my missionary neighbor that have been going on for years. Over that time I have watched his position change on issues connected to his core faith. The most visible of these is that he has come a long way toward understanding that the science behind the Theory of Evolution is solid, and that Global Warming is probably not just a hoax to make money for Al Gore. Every step we take with our religious friends and neighbors, that chips away at misunderstanding, helps the overall movement to reason, and away from unsubstantiated ideology. My neighbor (I call him “Missionary Mike” in my writings) is nowhere near openly doubting his interaction with deified Jesus (based on his “personal evidence’) but he now accepts much more of the natural world-view, and has even told me of cases where he has set his Christian friends straight when they have made anti-science claims.

    It has come up many times on these discussion threads that people rarely have their world view turned around in a single encounter, especially to the point of admitting such to the “other.” However, any number of pieces have been written by former religious people who tell of having questions in their minds start with watching a debate, or trying to justify their religious position, even though the impact of the questions did not become life-changing for many years after. We can never know the extent of ripples when we drop a stone into a hidden pond. I believe we should be as friendly in our approach as does not tread into hypocrisy, and believe we should not ridicule people for their lack of knowledge or slowness of thought, even as we do from time to time, need to ridicule their dogma that has made itself immune to the reach of reason.

  6. This idea is all fine and dandy, but getting it into practice is a different ball game in most situations.

    Take the experiment at Strange Notions. Now moderation is always going to be a subjective exercise. Impartiality is key. But when the impartiality has preconceived bias, the game gets very complex.

    The commenters in question were banned for clear and repeated violations of our commenting policy, all of which are still publicly evident, including regular snark and sarcasm, personal insults, ad hominem and straw men attacks, and regular bouts of vulgarity. We issued multiple warnings, removed several individual posts, but the commenters displayed an inability or an unwillingness to change their style of dialogue.

    That is what the moderator at SN said with regards to the banning of atheists on his site..yes, the guy whose site was created for Catholics and atheists to engage in debate moderates his own site…impartial?…I don’t believe so.

    I could have had no complaint had it been I that was banned at SN, I’m guilty of at least some of those indiscretions as the mods here can attest too. But I’m safe as houses, my debating skills are questionable, so I’m just the sort of gobshite atheist they like to keep around just to prove a point. BTW, a Catholic that was an embarrassment was canned too…a geocentrist moonbeam, never the less, he was forever calling the rest of the RC congregation on their ignorance of doctrine and catechism. A number of the cleverer atheists and in the interests of impartiality, the one moonbeam Catholic, all got the shove.

    But here is the crux of the matter, the icing on the cake and the straw that broke camels back of the bias moderation, was the banning of epeeist. Now for all the newbies here, epeeist hasn’t been around much lately, but I can assure you, he does not fit into the description put on him above. What he is though, is outstanding at taking theist arguments and surgically dissecting them using critical thinking, reason and evidence without rising to the ham-fisted type of sledgehammer ridicule and mockery I often resort to. This doesn’t seem to bode well when engaging a lot of theists though, especially the ones that have an education and think their sophisticated theology is the end all and be all of any God debate.

    My point is, atheists can only be reasonable with theists that have a penchant for being reasonable in return…unfortunately, it’s my experience that those types are few and far between.

    • In reply to #12 by Ignorant Amos:

      This idea is all fine and dandy, but getting it into practice is a different ball game in most situations.

      Thing is, Ig, that SN and most of its participants are active religious apologists. And this is just wrestling pigs. All you can do is put on a show for the lurkers, stay as clean as you can and try not to let the pigs look too happy.

      Dealing with individuals in a social setting most of that grief goes away. The lying for Jesus at least abates when you can look them straight in the eye.

      • In reply to #13 by phil rimmer:

        Thing is, Ig, that SN and most of its participants are active religious apologists. And this is just wrestling pigs. All you can do is put on a show for the lurkers, stay as clean as you can and try not to let the pigs look too happy.

        Oh I agree one hundred percent…the same goes for a great many of those believers that visit RDFRS. As you aptly quote GBS…

        “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

        Sometimes I like it too…it can be great sport and a reason to go learn new things.

        With a banner that proclaims, “Come now, let us reason together.” – Isaiah 1:18, the SN site was destined to end up a self appreciation society…when ones argument can be reduced to God-did-it or because God-says-so…allegedly, then reason has already abandoned any discussion. Already some have claimed victory at SN, but does it count when the best of our gladiators are being stifled because ANY cutting argument is seen as disrespectful.

        I was slated for shortening Pope John Paul the second to JPII…it is disrespectful. Now I have no respect for JPII that’s for sure, but it is nonsense to suggest that coming from an atheist it should be a point of contention, especially when Catholics are doing the same thing elsewhere on the internet. The same apologist that got his knickers in a twist over a “3 in 1″ god remark. At the same time, we have clerics on SN ending every comment with “viva Cristo Rey!” or “Long live Christ the King!”…not a very accommodating remark given that it derives from a battle cry, yet nevertheless, accepted by the “impartial” moderators.

        Dealing with individuals in a social setting most of that grief goes away. The lying for Jesus at least abates when you can look them straight in the eye.

        While I still agree with you on this, here’s my problem. Getting individuals with even a rudimentary knowledge of the theist arguments to sit and discuss the details is damn difficult. The religious come in categories of those that don’t know and don’t care to know and either stick their fingers in their ears and refuse to talk about it, or insist on arguing from their position of total ignorance anyway. Either group get all uppity when errors in their thought process about the stuff they believe are challenged. Most people I know consider themselves religious, I’ve yet to find one that has read the scriptural texts. They have no idea on the theology or history of the religion they have faith in, and when it comes to the arguments…bringing up the KCA for example, I might as well be talking Swahili.

        I dare say finding someone with a background in theology might make a difference. As Ehrman points out on numerous occasions, those with a seminary education know the truth, yet they never fell the need to impart that knowledge to the laypersons.

        I guess the point I’m trying to make, at least in my own case and experience, is that “punching up” isn’t much of an option. I’m not surrounded in intellectuals with a rationale, theist or otherwise.

        • In reply to #14 by Ignorant Amos:

          In reply to #13 by phil rimmer:

          Sometimes I like it too…it can be great sport and a reason to go learn new things.

          You were born to it…… pig wrestling that is. And its a delight to watch. And it is only apologists that will willingly (or usefully) get in the ring with you. Knowing more about (say) Christianity than 99.9% of Christians does reduce your choice of worthy swine.

          Never having suffered at the hands of religion as you and Steve (and epeeist) have I find boredom sets in early over discussion of religious truth claims, BUT, one area I find endlessly productive when talking to some religious chap in the pub say is the question of how to decide what is moral. And in the end this is all I want from people. They can keep their magic feather so long as they, every day, make decisions that net the least harm. This is an emotional as much as an intellectual area and bright or dim our opinions equally matter in the matter of moral consensus. Challenging another that they are falling short in their daily due diligence by producing look up table judgments, when they feel they have the moral high ground is quite a shock for those who don’t think about their religion much.

          To a few (ok 2) I have lent a DVD of Russell T. Davies’ tv serial The Second Coming. Taking the Christian story as true it argues that we should live our lives free of it. The argument that we should grow up and take full responsibility for ourselves seems to have that judo type virtue of using your oponents momentum to defeat them. Whilst I can’t say it worked twice, it has certainly had beneficial effects twice.

          I’m not surrounded in intellectuals with a rationale, theist or otherwise.

          That’s why we’re virtually here.

          Ig, do you blog?

    • Amos,

      My point is, atheists can only be reasonable with theists that have a penchant for being reasonable in return…unfortunately, it’s my experience that those types are few and far between.

      This is all too familiar to me. I cannot think of a more hateful thing to say to a person than “well, then you are going to hell”. Now, the person saying it has to be a believer for it to be hateful. I don’t believe there is a hell so it is just a stupid thing to say when my brain processes it.

      However, when a believer says this, the implications for what is transpiring in their brain are huge. What are they actually saying???? It is an awful, hateful thing to say. Yet, it is bandied about more commonly than “hello”.

      In my house, we have a funny saying “outsick the sicko”. It is an unwritten rule for how to defeat an intruder who wants to harm you. Once a believer has identified themselves as hateful and wanting to hurt others, I classify them in the “sicko” pile and get aggressive. I know that it is ineffective and a character flaw, but, being reasonable with unreasonable people gets you beheaded.

      In reply to #12 by Ignorant Amos:

      This idea is all fine and dandy, but getting it into practice is a different ball game in most situations.

      Take the experiment at Strange Notions. Now moderation is always going to be a subjective exercise. Impartiality is key. But when the impartiality has preconceived bias, the game gets very com…

  7. Wonderful sentiments, indeed. And if the Christian right understood the value of separation of church and state we might be in complete agreement. Unfortunately, we live in a time where tolerance, understanding and secularism have been rejected by christian activists on our local and regional and national education boards, legislatures, and in the highest levels of government. Secularists and atheists have a history of tolerance in this country — even as we watch fundamentalism and fanaticism achieve terrifying new levels of influence and success. There is an overall mindset now we can no longer stand by silently, and let even one religionists speak unopposed or unchallenged. While this is not always artfully done we are encouraged that the voices of reason, history, science and good old-fashion intellectual outrage are pushing back. WE have no desire to convert the faithful or destroy religion for that matter. For however much fun it might be to try, we also know it is impossible to argue with a “believer” because they have traded their intellectual curiosity for the comfortable pseudo history and dubious logic (Post hoc ergo propter hoc) of The Bible. In this effort, I am reminded by Emerson of the liberating imperative to “speak hard words, even if it contradicts everything you said the day before.”

    “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines… Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.” We speak not to convert or condemn but to embolden others to no longer remain silent out of traditional respect for religious freedom. A freedom and basic right that is now egregiously abused by shameless fanatics intent on imposing their beliefs on the rest of us.

  8. I don’t want to be friends with people with whom I have to walk on eggshells about religion. I had bad experiences a number of years ago, with a Christian family I had known for 20 years. I had believed that we were genuinely friends, despite our differences, but when it came to the crunch, they said they had simply been “tolerating” me and my “atheistic, paganistic views” and non-heterosexuality, and using me as a yardstick against which to measure their own, self-defined moral superiority. They believed they were on the moral high ground and I wasn’t. No friendship can survive that.

  9. “But we cannot assume that any comments, so long as they’re directed at an idea or religion, cannot be harmful to believers”

    Is there any chance this assertion can be explored? Only too often a comment (most likely to be a reflection on fact or illogical thinking) becomes suddenly recast as something aggressive, militant, harmful (surely you’ve heard those words before). The accusation is that we inevitably hurt the person, insult the family or the country. You see it in RD’s several YouTube forays. Yet the intention of the comment is to allow the person before us to challenge a smothering and harmful influence.

    (I’m getting nowhere near making a point here, so will wind up.)

  10. Dropping the “There is no God Bomb” is going to have a huge response effect. Yet, there are Atheist and Christians who find formal behavior’s by expressing their importance in their belief. Ethics were a good example of serious values , even independent of god, metaphors can be extended in meaning, defined with a associated word. I can not judge a persons feelings who has believed in a God their entire life, as well as generations religious past, heritage, morals. Yet, my ethics are common if not the same, so I am going to handle my Atheist thoughts different than I would a teacher or adult who may choose to berate who I am. Atheist in Georgia are STILL walking on eggshells. Atlanta was wonderful for civil rites, not for a godless person though. ONE NATION UNDER GOD……I lied to myself so the corporal punishment was not used on my behind. The gentleman you met with floppy brown hair was well aware of Atheist turning Christian, C.S.Lewis handouts, you met a person who is religious, though not small-minded. That is good conversation and teaching, learning from each others ethics was indeed a envious seat you sat in, I would loved to have been there.

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