Bad Cop: The Case Against Contempt

Why atheists and other varieties of naturalists shouldn't heap scorn on supernaturalists.

The most common complaint against the New Atheists concerns their tone: contemptuous, dismissive, arrogant, sometimes vitriolic. How you perceive their discourse depends somewhat on which side of the debate you’re on, since no matter how diplomatic the debunkers of the supernatural, religionists don’t like to hear that their beliefs are unjustified. This is especially true if religion is central to one’s identity, as it often is among fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. But it’s nevertheless the case that some of the most prominent atheists – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens – seem to relish deriding “faith-heads,” as Dawkins calls them at his website.

From a naturalist’s perspective based in a commitment to rational empiricism, beliefs about factual matters grounded in faith, revelation, intuition or tradition are notoriously and sometimes dangerously unreliable. When deciding what’s true about the world, we should stick with science and other forms of evidence-based inquiry. But are non-empiricists therefore deserving of ridicule and contempt for their epistemic shortcomings? And does it help the cause of gaining respect for science and empiricism, and therefore naturalism, for its proponents to indulge in disdain?

The matter of rhetorical tactics surfaced recently in the context of a debate among naturalists about so-called religious “accomodationism” by science-promoting organizations. As described by biologist Jerry Coyne and here at Naturalism.Org, groups such as the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and the National Association of Science (NAS) try to accommodate religionists, and thus win their support for science, by downplaying the conflict between science and faith. In their position statements and other materials, they argue that science and religion have different domains and ways of knowing, point out that many scientists are religious, and link to writings that purportedly illustrate how science and faith can get along. Coyne and others such as P.Z. Myers and Russell Blackford object, saying that accomodationism is a misguided attempt to paper over what they see as irreconcilable differences, to the detriment of effective advocacy for science. On the assumption they’re right, that science and faith can’t be reconciled (at least as ways of knowing about the world), then how should naturalists pitch the case for science to the undecided? Commenting on Coyne, Dawkins recommends using “naked contempt”:

I have from time to time expressed sympathy for the accommodationist tendency so ably criticized here by Jerry Coyne. I have occasionally worried that – just maybe – Eugenie Scott [of the NCSE] and the appeasers might have a point, a purely political point but one, nevertheless, that we should carefully consider. I have lately found myself moving away from that sympathy.

I suspect that most of our regular readers here would agree that ridicule, of a humorous nature, is likely to be more effective than the sort of snuggling-up and head-patting that Jerry is attacking. I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt.

Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others are probably right that contemptuous ridicule is not an expedient way to change the minds of those who are deeply religious. But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.

You might say that two can play at that game. Suppose the religious start treating us with naked contempt, how would we like it? I think the answer is that there is a real asymmetry here. We have so much more to be contemptuous about! And we are so much better at it. We have scathingly witty spokesmen of the calibre of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Who have the faith-heads got, by comparison? Ann Coulter is about as good as it gets. We can’t lose!

To treat individuals with contempt is to render judgment on their character and moral status: they are not our equals in intelligence or goodness; their faults make them unworthy of respect, so they should be shunned. Contempt, derision, and scorn put their targets at least on social probation, at worst forever beyond the pale. The underlying assumption is that the contemptible strongly deserve scorn since they could and should have known better or acted better, but did not. In the present case, those on the fence about religion deserve ridicule for any inclination to faith because it’s just obvious that faith is a non-starter; people should simply know better. But is ridicule deserved, especially the deliberately hurtful kind Dawkins recommends, and is it effective in pulling people away from faith?

From a naturalistic, cause and effect, standpoint, individuals arrive at their epistemic convictions – their beliefs about the basis for knowledge – as the result of their upbringing and personality, part of which is genetically determined. Each of us has our particular convictions because of our particular, contingent individual development within a community and a wider culture. Indeed, all our character traits and basic belief commitments can be traced back to formative conditions, genetic and environmental, that we ourselves didn’t choose, such as parents, peers, schools and churches. Even the skeptical propensity to question dogma and demand evidence, should it gain a hold in our character, gets implanted as a function of these conditions. So, to find ourselves empiricists is something to be grateful for, not something we can take ultimate credit for. Likewise, we cannot, if we take the science of personality development seriously, suppose that those attracted to or captured by faith could have turned out otherwise, given their formative conditions and the life trajectory that followed. They were fully caused to be credulous, in need of certainty, or otherwise predisposed to find faith-based religions attractive. To suppose otherwise is to put stock in some contra-causal capacity for self-creation for which there’s no evidence.

To the extent that contempt is incited by the idea that its targets could have avoided being who they are, given their life circumstances, it will be mitigated by this fundamental causal insight. Had you been in something close to their shoes, you likely would have turned out much the same – you don’t possess an intrinsic, superior, causally exempt moral core that would have let you avoid their fate. Nor do they have an inferior moral core that could have transcended their circumstances, but despicably chose not to using their uncaused free will. It’s simply the luck of the draw that’s put each of you on opposite sides of the faith-science divide. Contempt therefore loses the backing of the idea that character flaws, including credulousness, are ultimately self-chosen.[1] Absent this backing, you might not feel so contemptuous, assuming you were inclined to in the first place. You might even find yourself inclined to compassion by seeing that there’s a full causal explanation of the opposition’s wrong-headedness. There but for fortune go you.

Two leading atheists, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, take explicitly determinist views of human agency (see here). They both disavow free will of the contra-causal, libertarian variety, which they rightly see as logically and empirically unsupportable. Dawkins seems to vacillate on free will, at one point taking a very determinist stand against retributive punishment (see here) but on the other not ruling it out entirely (see here).[2] I haven’t been able to find a definitive statement by Hitchens on free will. Whatever the case, it’s difficult to imagine any of these basically naturalistic thinkers coming to the defense of libertarian free will in order to justify contempt; it’s simply too implausible. So one wonders, on what naturalistic grounds is genuine and intentionally hurtful contempt justifiable?

One might find that when considering the epistemic failings of the faithful, contempt arises more or less instinctively – what philosopher Peter Strawson called a reactive attitude. And maybe expressing reactive contempt will make some of those attracted to religion think twice: as Dawkins says, no one likes to be subjected to scorn. But this is a tactical, instrumental justification for reactivity (and who doesn’t like giving vent to their passions?), not a reason for thinking that derision is deserved.[3] If so, then we have to see whether “naked contempt” is actually effective in changing minds. Having put some moral distance between ourselves and contempt, we can ask whether there might not be better ways to pull people away from faith, ways that are less punitive and more consistent with our worldview.

Those on the receiving end of contempt are not likely to be well-disposed toward you. Contempt implicitly, if not explicitly, relegates them to second-class status, which very likely incites anger, resentment and counter-contempt on their part: You think you’re better than me? Up yours buddy! Contempt is intrinsically uncharitable, the opposite of engagement and trust, and its damage is hard to undo. You’ve displayed belief in your own moral superiority, and an eagerness to socially excommunicate your imagined inferiors. Neither of these are particularly attractive personal qualities, and for good reason. What justifies putting yourself categorically above me, once we’ve discounted the fiction of the contra-causal moral core? If I manage to get back in your good graces, can I trust you not to turn on me again? All told, being contemptuous seems not an effective way to win friends or influence people. If you’re trying to persuade folks to your way of thinking, acting holier (or smartier) than thou isn’t a good advertisement for it.[4]

A prima facie better, less contentious approach is to make the case for empiricism and naturalism with all moral seriousness, but without sliding into scorn. Even if we don’t possess causally exempt moral cores, the moral dimension attached to cognition still exists. It’s arguably an ethical obligation to act on empirically well-grounded beliefs, given how much depends on getting facts right about the world in an interconnected age. For instance, it’s morally wrong for government officials to formulate policies on climate change and other issues affecting public welfare on the basis of what they know is bad science, and it’s important to say so.[5] But in making this argument we’re better off speaking from a position consistent with empiricism, namely a position of epistemic and moral humility, not superiority. As cognitively fallible creatures, we are humble before the facts that science reveals, among which is the fact of the contingency of our own commitment to science. We are the lucky ones, not the chosen people. By abjuring contempt, we stay true to our worldview and model what we want of others: a modicum of tolerance for the mistakes we know we’re going to make.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get tough on those who intentionally transgress cognitive norms essential to a well-functioning society; until we all become saints, sanctions will play a necessary role in encouraging good epistemic practice among public decision-makers. But the best way to promote a commitment to empiricism is by positive persuasion and example. We have to make the case, in ordinary language, for the virtues of public observation and evidence, without getting on our high horse and without demonizing those who’ve missed the cognitive boat in some respects. This should be part of the mission of science-promoting organizations: to show why science really is better than faith as a route to knowledge, but not to scorn or excommunicate the faithful in the process. The NCSE, NAS and similar groups have been careful not to offend the religious, but could do more to educate the public about the epistemic superiority of empiricism in grounding factual beliefs, as recommended here.

There need be no war of worldviews among scientists, at least not in the lab. Supernaturalists such as biologists Ken Miller and Francis Collins are perfectly capable of doing good science since science doesn’t care what your worldview is, only that you hew to good canons of evidence and explanation. So long as they keep faith-based speculation out of the (public) classroom and noted as such in their journal articles, all will be well. Meanwhile, naturalists can engage with them, non-contemptuously, on basic questions of epistemology: on what intersubjective evidential grounds, if any, is it warranted to believe the supernatural exists? Why do you take your subjective experience of God, the soul, or free will as good evidence for such things? Can we simply reason our way to the supernatural, as Alvin Plantinga argues, or must there be reliable public observation of it to justify belief? Both naturalists and supernaturalists think they’re representing reality accurately, but they can’t both be right. Exploring these questions, preferably without rancor or contempt, is one of the more momentous philo-scientific pursuits made possible by the open society. 

TWC, May 2009 


[1]Psychologists call the penchant to attribute behavior to innate characteristics rather than situational or systemic factors the “fundmental attribution error,” about which see the Situationist.

[2] It’s noteable that Dawkin’s contribution to the 2006 Edge question (“What is your dangerous idea?"), in which he repudiates retributive punishment, was omitted from the book.

[3] Desert doesn’t disappear under naturalism, but it gets significantly toned down. Agents deserve, naturalistically, the morally relevant responses to their acts (praise, blame, etc.) to the extent that such responses actually work to guide behavior toward good consequences in ways we deem appropriate. Given the humanistic imperative to minimize suffering, punitive responses should only be used if non-punitive measures prove ineffective, and if their collateral harm is outweighed by the benefit produced.

[4] Of course these are simply my intuitions; research is needed on the efficacy of contempt.

[5] The Center for Inquiry is advocating for scientific integrity in government, see here.