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Respectable Infidels

June 8, 2008, 10:47 AM
Dabanner

The Volokh Conspiracy has a fascinating excerpt from the writings of Anthony Comstock (HT, Dispatches from the Culture Wars):


The respectable infidel is not even referred to, but simply those who stand in the forefront, zealous to be known as opposed to God and religion, and who by their blasphemous speeches and publications are putting to shame honest infidels. Every person must respect the infidel who says, "I cannot see nor understand these matters of religion as you do; I wish I could." There is a vast difference between such a one and the one who seeks by scoffs and sneers to wound the feelings of those who differ from him, or who makes a living by blaspheming the name of God, and discusses those subjects that most closely concern the interests of the soul so as to provoke laughter and applause from thoughtless ones.


Society for the Suppression of Vice

Comstock was one of America's most notorious censors. In 1873 he founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, whose symbol, no joke, was a man burning books. The Society's purpose was to file suit to have offensive books banned on obscenity grounds; its most notable victory was a 1921 court decision which resulted in James Joyce's Ulysses declared obscene and banned in the United States for over ten years.

Also in 1873, Comstock successfully lobbied Congress to pass the eponymous Comstock Law, which outlawed the sending of any "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious" material through the mail. Comstock was made a special agent of the Postal Service and enforced this law with relish, targeting not just "obscene" authors such as George Bernard Shaw, but also groups and individuals who provided information on sexuality and birth control. Early feminists such as Victoria Woodhull, Ida Craddock, Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger were all prosecuted by Comstock for distributing such information, with varying degrees of success. Another of his targets was D.M. Bennett, the freethinking author of periodicals like The Truth-Seeker, which supported women's rights and attacked organized religion. Comstock called himself "the weeder in God's garden" and boasted of how many people he had driven to suicide.

Remarkably, the distinction Comstock draws in the above excerpt is one that's still heard today. Even today, the myth persists that there are two different kinds of atheists: the ones who are decent and honest and respect other people's faith, and the ones who are nasty and extremist and take pleasure in scoffing and mocking at other people's deeply held and sincere religious convictions.

This is an entirely spurious distinction. There is no bright line that can be drawn between "respectful" and "insulting" speech; pretty much anything that anyone can say will be thought of as entirely proper and appropriate by some and as outrageous by others. Is it respectful when Muslims affirm that God is one (the principle of tawhid), thus denying the fundamental Christian belief of the Trinity? Is it respectful when Christians profess that Jesus was God's son, which Muslims view as shirk - idolatry - and consider the worst of sins? There is no objective answer to these questions; it depends on what you believe. And how much worse is the situation for atheists, whose very existence is often considered to be an intolerable insult?

Unfortunately, there are some badly misguided people who want to write this spurious distinction into law, and who claim that we can safely ban "hateful" or "insulting" speech without taking away people's right to voice their own convictions. The most charitable thing that can be said about such people is that they have obviously never given even the most casual thought to the consequences of the policy they advocate.

Comstock's comments are revealing in another way as well. As I said in "Firebrands", the kind of atheists whom believers consider "respectable" are atheists who wish they were religious. They approve of atheists who validate their presuppositions about the desirability and superiority of being a theist, or who concede that religious ethics are superior to any secular alternative. Comstock's remarks fall along this well-trodden line, as does this even earlier example from history, an 1836 sermon from The American National Preacher:


All the most respectable infidels have been ready to acknowledge, that there is no code of laws for the regulation of human conduct, like that of the Bible.

Church-state separation opponent Richard John Neuhaus voiced some similar claims earlier this year, contrasting "blameworthy" atheism with those atheists who merely wish they were believers:


"The world of today knows a new category of people: the atheists in good faith, those who live painfully the situation of the silence of God, who do not believe in God but do not boast about it; rather they experience the existential anguish and the lack of meaning of everything: They too, in their own way, live in the dark night of the spirit."

Obviously, the apologists who say these things are less than sincere. They're not truly seeking a civil debate, but submission to their will. Like many fervent believers, they find criticism intolerable and assume that anyone who disagrees with them and says so is an outrageous, disrespectful infidel out to hurt their feelings. To them, "respect" means "obedience", and honest dissent is disrespectful by definition, no matter how civilly it's phrased.

But there's no reason this should daunt us. Even if we were out to hurt believers' feelings, what would that prove? After all, we don't belong to any of those religions! We're under no obligation to treat those religions with respect or to avoid giving offense. That's a rule for believers, not for nonbelievers, and we are not bound by it.

Nor should we be concerned whether we seem "respectable" in the eyes of believers. Civil, yes. Reasonable, yes. But "respectable" should set off alarm bells: historically, that word has always been used by advocates of majoritarianism to try to shut down reform movements by demonizing them as a bunch of wild, unkempt radicals. After all, when prejudice and superstition are popular, being "respectable" means endorsing those sentiments and going out of one's way not to offend the people who hold them. "Respectable", in this context, means keeping quiet and not making a fuss.

To this, I answer that the prejudiced and the irrational should be offended. Discomfiting the holders of such beliefs is the only way society has ever made moral or intellectual progress, and we can never make any if we tiptoe around them. Thus, we should speak our minds, and we need not worry about the reaction from people who would oppose us anyway. We have every right to stand up for what we believe in. If the strongest rejoinder that apologists can muster is that we're not being nice to them, and they cannot refute our arguments on the merits, that is essentially an admission of defeat.

 

Respectable Infidels

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