Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

If you attack the Church, you are attacking me.

Many times, when I make criticisms of religion (or a religion), various practitioners take it personally and say that I’m attacking them.

My answer is: No, I’m not attacking you; I’m attacking your church. If you can’t tell the difference between your church and yourself, then you have made a serious mistake. What that means is that you are identifying too closely with the organisation. You have conflated your goals, your future, and your identity with those of the group. You need to fix this. It’s not healthy to confuse your own identity with other things that are not you. (It is understandable that high-commitment religions are slow to correct this tendency. It works overwhelmingly to their advantage.)

Many religious folks are able to differentiate, and I quite enjoy talking to them. Many thanks if you’re one of these. I have a harder time with the internalisers. I’ve just had an multi-day online discussion where I started with this notion:

Churches are (among other things) safe places for weak ideas. They’re like shelters for ideas that can’t defend themselves.

I thought this was an interesting idea. I’d always considered that ideas keep religions going, but this was the opposite — the idea that churches exist as social life-support systems for their ideas — and it hinted at a commensal relationship. I was hoping for a bit of discussion on the topic. Oh, that it were possible.

It didn’t take long before a believer insisted that I was just ‘having a go’ at religion and that I was implying that all religious people were ‘weak-minded fools’. I don’t think this, but if someone wanted evidence to the contrary, it was not to be found from his comments. He insisted (without evidence) that angels and demons were real, that science ‘didn’t know everything’, and that his ‘feelings of the Spirit’ were different from ordinary feelings, and ought to be evidence enough for anyone. Moreover, he was unwilling to consider that his subjective feelings might be in error. All of this was couched in the most tormented reasoning; over the course of 200 comments, he committed the bandwagon fallacy, special pleading, and terminal logorrhea. Well, that’s not a fallacy, but ad hominem attacks are; he surmised that I must be a terrible partner if I needed evidence for everything. Not to mention the argument from ignorance — what proof did I have that God didn’t exist? In short, all the devices, defense mechanisms, and poor reasoning that has kept him (and will keep him forever) anchored to his faith. And he managed all this while misreading my initial premise. If he wanted to demonstrate that religious believers were not weak-minded fools, he could have done a better job than he did.

I am not, by nature, a poker of hives. I dissect poor ideas unsparingly, but I try to go easy on actual people (previous paragraph excepted). I don’t expect believers to like it. But there needs to be a way to say “I think you’ve got this wrong”.

So if I criticise a religion, what reaction would I expect its members to have? That depends.

  • If I’m right, accept it, and move on with a determination to do better.
  • If I’m wrong, please tell me. But in the process, don’t make me right.


  1. Fwiw, that's a pretty nice insight. I never thought of churches as safe-havens for bad ideas.

    Makes me think of Michelle Bachman (sp?)

  2. I have been hit with this repeatedly over the last few weeks. I am tired of people saying I am attacking them when really they were attacking me… I am really on the verge of just finding new friends and family. Thanks for the post.

  3. I think a good technique is to try and abstract your criticism as much as you can.

    Why are Churches a safe haven? Is there a more generic concept? And then Churches are just one example, among other types of safe havens.

    I think this softens the blow a little.

  4. Kiley — Glad you liked it. Yes, the people I am describing are so sensitive to any slights, but so unaware of those they deliver. It's so adolescent. But I'm sure they think I'm doing the same thing. Sigh.

    Keep strong and hit me up for a chat if you need. I'm on Google+ now!

    That's for everyone, too — thanks for being great commentors.

  5. I completely disagree. An attack on the church is an attack on its members. What is an organization but a bunch of people?

    Criticizing the group is a collective diss…and The Lord does not tolerate being dissed.

    You saw what he did to those kids through his bald Old Testament prophet. Imagine what he could do with Pres. Monson's full head of hair.

  6. I think the problem is that atheists — and church leaders — make no distinction between subjective religious beliefs and objective religious beliefs.

    Subjective beliefs ("I am a child of God") are like your orientation; they're labels you give to the feelings you have, and you can't argue anyone out of their feelings.

    Objective beliefs ("The Garden of Eden was in present-day Missouri") are statements of external fact, which (in the case of certain religions) often have no basis in reality.

    Certain religions conflate the two on purpose. That way any skeptic's refutation of an objective belief is perceived as an attack on one's personal, subjective beliefs, and provokes an emotional defense. Meanwhile, many (most?) skeptics refuse to see the distinction between the two, and attack both with equal intensity.

    This is disingenious, because subjective beliefs a) can't be disproven, and b) are based on feelings, and so can't be swayed by an appeal to external fact. It's these kinds of attacks that bring out the worst in both skeptics and believers.

    I'd also ask whether or not your "shelter for bad ideas" thing applies to rape and abuse survivor groups as well. Objectively false ideas aren't the only ones that need a greenhouse in order to take root.

  7. Love the believer, hate the belief?

  8. "I am really on the verge of just finding new friends and family. "

    LOL… been there…

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