Monday, 28 June 2010

You Really Aren't Helping

The curious case of the You're Not Helping (YNH) blog (now defunct, so I can't link to it) highlights a particular sort of human irrational behaviour. It starts from a good intention, I think, but is derailed by simple lack of reasoning.

For a recent history of YNH, this post from The Buddha Is Not Serious gives a good breakdown, in more ways than one. You're Not Helping is a blog started by a faitheist; that is, an atheist who sees value in faith or, at least, that some respect for their beliefs is in order. Even more particularly, a faitheist thinks that some atheist behaviour (typically labelled 'new atheist') is driving a wedge between 'moderate' theists and the rest of rational society. Their complaint is obviously not about the arguments put forward by the new atheists - I show in this post how their arguments are in fact the same ones put forward by the old atheists - and the faitheist is an atheist so presumably must concur. No, their complaint is about the tone; they think a better tone will achieve better results, politically, I think.

Tone is important, we know. Russell Blackford writes intelligently about it here. But it's not all-important. Further, it's not evident that one tone is always the right tone to deliver an argument. I like to think I'm quite reasonable when putting forward my point of view, but I dare say some would call me strident, and others would call me soft on the faithful, depending on their own stridency. I don't see that as a problem. I would encourage a variety of tone for the delivery of these arguments.

The faitheist position is that the tone adopted by the new atheists is unhelpful, and therefore they should not use that tone or, failing that, be silent. There are a number of problems with this:

1) There seems to be no evidence presented to support their hypothesis - it's just common sense, they think.
2) They fail to demonstrate that there is a way of delivering the atheist message without falling foul of the 'tone' accusation. Massimo Pigliucci is a leading faitheist, whose philosophical writing I've often admired, but hilariously is accused here of failing in the tone wars himself ("Tone matters. And sarcasm is not science."). Should he tell himself to be quiet?
3) And finally, their commentaries on the new atheists adopt the same snark and sarcasm that they are demanding the new atheists remove from their commentaries on theism - just consider the antics at YNH and The Intersection.

This really is an impossible and incoherent position. I'm not going to tell them to shut up, however (that's their line). No, I'm just going to keep pointing it out, whether they like it or not, and in whatever tone I choose to adopt. That, I think, is my right.

Incidentally, it's ironic here, that YNH complains about being told to shut up, on a site calculated to shut up new atheists:

If you were aiming to shut up and silence an individual trying to express his opinion by digging deep for personal information and not caring what collateral damage you leave along the way in the form of incorrect allegations, you've succeeded.
Well, I certainly don't want YNH to shut up, but there are justifiable reasons for folk wanting to know who an anonymous blogger is who's telling them to how to behave. There's always a suspicion of ulterior motives; it's useful to know where someone is coming from, since it backs up their opinions and gives them some colour. It's not vital to know, but can be helpful. Imagine if YNH was simply a blog set up by churchmen to sow dissent amongst the atheist community? That would be pertinent. Not that that would ever happen, of course.

But this is really a ridiculous diversion from the everyday battle to promote rationalism in the public sphere. Nevertheless, as long as we are wired as we are, some of us will go off on irrational tangents. Here's hoping William at You're Not Helping will see the error of his ways one day.

UPDATE: Gurdur, another prominent accommodationist, clearly spots the problem that YNH exposes; one cannot demand folk behave according to certain rules whilst one flouts the very rules one demands. This first commenter, defending YNH says:
He may have conducted himself badly, but it does not diminish the validity of the message.
Let me just complete that sentence to highlight its asininity:
He may have conducted himself badly, but it does not diminish the validity of the message that one mustn't conduct oneself badly.

FURTHER UPDATE: A full and frank (?) apology has been made for the conduct of YNH by William. I confess it comes over a little too neat for my liking, but others are giving him the benefit of the doubt. It is only teh interwebz, so let's consign it to history and experience.

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