Should we be respectful towards religious ignoramuses?

A European professor just sent me an email that consisted solely of this (so much for civility!):

Calling someone an ignorant fool seems to be counterproductive, particularly if the goal is to build a concensus [sic] against the real enemy – militant religious fundamentalism.

The professor was clearly referring to my piece, “Rabbi Sacks is an ignorant fool,” in which Sacks described how morality could never derive from secular reason, why New Atheists were not “serious enough” (i.e., we don’t fully realize how deep is the spiritual void into which we’ve leapt, and that therefore we should be much more dolorous), and how only “fundamentalist” religions are bad.

I criticized these arguments, especially the oft-seen assertion that morality must derive from God, and an atheistic world would therefore be a barbarous one. That, and the other two claims, are simply ignorant. Rabbi Sacks’ pronouncements on morality are absolutely refuted by the existence of moral atheists, as well as largely atheistic countries that remain civil.

I adamantly deny that calling someone an “ignorant fool” is counterproductive, particularly if the fool is a religious one and our goal is to disenfranchise the unwarranted authority of religion.

True, such names surely won’t convert Rabbi Sacks and his acolytes to my point of view. But this type of invective has a different audience: those on the fence. These fence-sitters include people wavering in their faith and—especially—children who haven’t yet been completely brainwashed.

One of the main goals of New Atheism is to buff away the veneer of respect that surrounds the word “faith.”  The statement that “He is a person of faith” was for many years seen as a great compliment.  But this is rapidly eroding, for faith is belief held either for bad reasons, in the absence of evidence altogether, or indeed, in the face of counterevidence. Faith is not a virtue, but a vice.  (That, by the way, is why science, which deems faith a vice, makes progress, while religion, which considers faith the greatest virtue, does not.)

So my answer to the good professor is this: all religions, and much of the world’s ills, are based on respect for faith.  How do we erode that respect without making fun of it, or without emphasizing as strongly as possible its inimical consequences?  We cannot get rid of faith while at the same time showing a phony respect to its adherents.

Rabbi Sacks belongs in Dara O Briain’s sack o’ fools, along with those who believe in homeopathy, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, UFOs, Scientologists, astrologers, and spiritual healers. All of these ludicrous beliefs are based on faith.  Nobody has a particular problem in calling adherents to those beliefs “ignorant fools.” So why does religion get a pass?


  1. gbjames
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    “But this type of invective has a different audience: those on the fence.”


    • Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      More or less.

      I think it actually has a a broader function: that of shifting the Overton window so that it will (someday, hopefully) be acceptable to call a religious spade a spade and to criticize religion frankly and directly.

      People won’t really have much day-to-day, non-academic incentive to ditch religion if we don’t create a climate in which it’s perceived that there’s something wrong with being religious (which there is).

      • gbjames
        Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        That, too.

  2. Posted June 24, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    no you shouldn’t. It’s about time someone told them the truth. They are deluded fools.

  3. brianbuchbinder
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Checked OED. “Concensus” is an obsolete variant of “consensus”.

    You give the best explanation I’ve heard of for adding insult to inquiry when debating the religious or those who support them. I’m not sure I’m convinsed 🙂 of efficacy, but you do have a point.

  4. Posted June 24, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    No, you should not stop doing that.

    Calling faith a vice is spot-on correct. (I maintain that it’s also a manifestation of a mental impairment.)

    Thanks again for putting it out there so clearly.

    • Michaelle Prosch Newman
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      Hear here! I’ve often wondered which part of the brain those religious “feelings” originate….insula? Some malfunctioning. Misdirected part… Maybe if the religious impulse were directed outward with true goodwill toward others it would self resolve.

  5. Posted June 24, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Your correspondent presumes that the “real enemy” are the fundamentalists, and that the religious moderates are not our enemy.

    I don’t agree. It is moderates like Rabbi Sacks who write articles attacking atheism and the role of atheists in society, it is the moderates who have much more political influence, and when you consider all of Britain’s violations of religious privilege, nearly all of them are promoted by the moderates such as Sacks, who has the ear of the establishment.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think Rabbi Sacks is a moderate. He is an Orthodox Jew who has been criticized for placating the least moderate of all Jews, the Haredi. I’d guess that moderate religious Jews wouldn’t be keen on this rabbi for the same reasons atheists wouldn’t be.

      Indeed, atheists often have more in common with moderate religious folks than moderates have with fundamentalists (from an ethical perspective) because even if moderates don’t want to admit it, they developed their moderate views from secular exposure. However moderates tend to align themselves with fundamentalists because of the god parts. This rabbi exploits this tendency. Calling out fundamentalist silliness and ignorant remarks that encourage this type of alliance may wake up some moderates and move them to unite with atheists against fundamentalists.

    • eric
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      I don’t see moderates as an enemy but that’s somewhat irrelevant.

      1. He’s painting a really bad picture of religious moderates. Disagreeinng on religion but agreeing on social policy should be no more diffucult than disagreeing on football teams but agreeing on social policy: if you can’t do it, that says something very negative about your ability to juggle multiple issues in your mind.

      2. As JAC says, the moderates may not necessarily be the audience.

      3. Even if they are, this can serve a ‘deflating’ purpose, cutting through someone’s attempt to ‘baffle wit BS.’ You don’t answer a Gish Gallup point by point. You answer by going meta. I.e., ‘your whole approach stinks, and here’s why.’

  6. truthspeaker
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Rabbi Sacks is part of the common enemy. He’s not the kind of guy I would want to build a consensus with.

  7. NewEnglandBob
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    I guess I can agree that calling Sacks an ignorant fool is not the most productive.

    Lets change it to labeling Sacks a malicious liar who tries to convert people to a foolish discredited dogma based on Bronze Age superstitious fears and obsessions with gonads.

    Yeah, that feels more appropriate.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink


  8. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    When someone behaves like an ignorant fool, then they should be called such. It’s important to criticize bad ideas. This is completely different from attacking someone for how they look or speak so the hint at ad hominem is unjustified.

    As Gloria once told Mike on All in the Family, “If the shoe fits, kick yourself with it!” 🙂

  9. Chuck O'Connor
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    I think if you say it with the smiling false piety of the religious, it can be quite effective. That is what I’ve come to do. The double-takes are funny.

  10. Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    “He is a person of faith”

    I’ve been proofreading my book on film noir all morning, which is probably why I momentarily misread this as “He is a prisoner of faith.”

    I kinda like my neologism . . .

      Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      The Philsophers Magazine had a review on Film Noir — one of their back issues. FYI ( must be easy to find)

      • Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the info. I may well have read it, to be honest: I was reading everything in sight while writing the book.

    • Graham
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      Convictions create convicts.

      • Filippo
        Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        Hmm . . . I wonder if traits create traitors? 😉

    • Posted June 24, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      OT, when will your book be published and why’s it called, JG?


      • Posted June 24, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        *what’s (stupid autocorrect)

      • Posted June 24, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink


        This isn’t the place. E-mail me at realthog-THING-optonline-THING-net for more info.

  11. Gordon Hill
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    It’s a question of your preferred audience.

  12. Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    The problem really goes beyond religion,
    Yes, calling names is not going to help, and I am guilty of doing that sometimes, is it really the fault of the ignorant to be so ignorant? Are parents educated on the basics of real science so they can motivate their children to be interested as well? or is it the the institutions in charge of propagating knowledge that are at fault , or even worse is it the fault of those in charge of overseeing what those institutions do, because those who achieve higher political influence may have the power but were really under educated in the sciences as well. What is going on seems to me like a never ending cycle Offending is not going to do any good, the problem will only be resolved through education.

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      ” . . . is it really the fault of the ignorant to be so ignorant?”

      Oh, in way too many cases, yes! We’re talking about educated, otherwise intelligent people with vested interests in the status quo, here. The sort of people who know perfectly well that the information is out there; they just prefer to ignore it.

      I doubt if Jerry would use the same words when dealing with the underprivileged uneducated victims of religion.

      • Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

        That is not what I am saying. My point, with a little more distribution of knowledge, “people with vested interests in the status quo” like him would have no audience.

        • Diane G.
          Posted June 24, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

          As soon as the education system is perfectly reformed we can reconsider the need for pointing out that preachers and other demagogues are full of it.

          Otherwise, you & I are probably on the same page regarding the non-willfully ignorant.

    • gbjames
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      “is it really the fault of the ignorant to be so ignorant”

      In the case of people like the good Rabbi, yes, absolutely.

      People like Sacks have had more than enough opportunity to escape their ignorance.

      What does no good is tone trolling.

    • Sastra
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      When we say that it is the fault of the ignorant that they are ignorant we’re actually giving them a lot of credit. We’re putting them on the same footing as ourselves and expecting them to live up to the virtues we all share.

      It’s much less respectful to “make allowances” and let irrationality slide because the Little People can’t help it, they’re not like us.

      • DV
        Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure it is respectful to hold people to unrealistic standards. Isn’t this lack of empathy masquerading as respect? When political and economic conservatives blame the poor for being poor, this is done with the excuse that all had equal ability and opportunity. Liberals counter that there is much more luck involved in life, not least of all the luck in having been born with the right genes for advantageous aptitudes.

        When knowledgeable and smart people blame the ignorant, i see this as rather like the conservatives blaming the poor – a lack of empathy masquerading as respect.

        • NewEnglandBob
          Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

          When the information is easily and widely available and the person is educated, then they should be blamed for their ignorance which is either willful or the result of laziness.

          • DV
            Posted June 24, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

            just like the poor are lazy.

            The human brain is not as logical as you make it out to be. We suffer from all sorts of fallacious thinking even with perfect information. Surely not everyone is endowed with equal ability to rationally overcome thinking traps and biases and indoctrination.

            • Posted June 24, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

              DV, overcoming thinking traps and biases does not cure ignorance. You are mistaking ignorance with stupidity. If a creationist reads WEIT, and continues to be a creationist, he/she is not ignorant, he/she is stupid. There is a significant difference.

              • DV
                Posted June 25, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

                Is is the fault of the stupid that they are stupid?

                And it is not a matter of stupidity in many cases. It is a matter of confirmation bias and how people deal with cognitive dissonance.

                I’m all for debating the issue and arguing with evidence. I’m just reacting to the idea that it is condescending to recognize that some people need their religion, and therefore we should deny this is ever the case and disabuse everyone of their comforting delusions.

        • Sastra
          Posted June 25, 2013 at 6:09 am | Permalink

          I don’t think the standards are “unrealistic” at all. Sure, we can sensitively and empathetically understand why people believe what they believe — and then use this understanding to help them change their minds. The “blaming” isn’t the point: the debate is. Most people can learn despite their backgrounds because we humans are adaptable.

          It’s the same situation as any other misunderstanding. Religion isn’t a special case.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      ” is it really the fault of the ignorant to be so ignorant? ”

      Sacks is a ‘learned’ Rabbi. Rabbi means ‘teacher’.

      Yes, one can fault the ignorant when it is willful ignorance.

    • darrelle
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      Why would offending never do any good even given the never ending cycle of ignorance begetting ignorance that you describe? That does not seem self evident to me at all.

      It does seem self evident to me, though, that sometimes poking and prodding someone in a way that makes them uncomfortable does cause them to reassess things. Such as observing someone they respect being mocked for saying something stupid.

      That I have seen happen. That has happened to me. I would never suggest that this methodology should be the only type used to try and change minds about anything, but I think it is clear that it does have some efficacy.

      One thing that does really piss me off is someone pretending to be nice and polite when that is not actually how they feel towards me. That makes me think that they are trying to use guile to manipulate me. That seems highly disrespectful to me.

      • Filippo
        Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        Hmm . . . I wonder what pearl of opinion that final, penultimate source of wisdom – that “still, small voice” of reason and civility – Dr. Neil deGrasse (“When in Doubt, Shout”) Tyson might offer on the subject?

    • Posted June 24, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think it’s a matter of “calling names”. Really, it behooves us to very clearly point out when religious authority figures (well, anyone really) are spouting ignorant, foolish drivel.


  13. Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Sorry, I forgot to add, because religious institutions can prey a lot more on those who know nothing!

  14. Erik
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    We should be respectful of people, but there is no reason that we must respect beliefs, especially those that are predicated upon faith alone. However, disrespect wins no converts and does not lend itself to supporting any movement or ideology. Therefore, respectfulness is the pragmatic approach. After all, Jesus instructs us to turn the other cheek…

    • Posted June 24, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      you take the BuyBull too literally

  15. Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Being a ‘social reactionary’, as is the case of person Rabbi Sacks, means they are mentally ill. We should leave it at that. Mental illness. One can recall time long ago of making fun of people with motor problems, calling them “spazz” (spastic) and so forth. In the same vein, I suggest leaving out the summary description of “fool”. It’s simply too vague for meaning to be communicated.

    I consider the mental illness of people like Rabbi Sacks to be in the same sort of category as Capgras syndrome. In Capgras syndrome, a blockage of signals to a distinct area of the amygdala, the emotional center, leaves the victim viewing someone (mother) or a pet, and exclaiming “She looks just like my mother, but it’s my mother why don’t I feel anything toward her? No, this can’t possibly be my mother, it’s some stranger pretending to be my mother.”

    This is a physical ‘broken wire’ in the brain. Freud knew of this, tried to tie it in to psychology and the “Oedipus” complex (now discredited). Rabbi Sacks has a similar ‘broken wire’, brought on by years of reinforcement, similar to a young man in war, by dint of his horrifying experiences, performing acts he never heretofore was capable of executing.

    “Religious Brain Disorder (RBD).

    Another parallel example is hoarding. There have been two spectacular cases of hoarding in my neighborhood, and in one case I spoke with the woman outside her home on many occasions. Never a single clue that inside, stacks of stuff to the ceiling, interleaven with rodent bodies. Mental illness, like RBD.

    • Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      edit to above comment-
      “…but IF it’s my mother why don’t I feel anything toward her?…”

    • Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      Thanks for this analysis.

      You’re the first person I’ve seen on this blog to view faith as an undesirable mental condition, or even a manifestation of one.

      And on the hoarding thing: Bingo. I’m pretty confident that the “hoarders” and “faithers” owe their illness to the same or adjoining portions of the brain. Every time I observe a faither, I automatically look for other manifestations. I’m never disappointed. They always reveal themselves.

    • Jamie
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      So called “mental illness” is not the answer. It wasn’t all that long ago that homosexuality was in the DSM as a “mental illness”. “Mental illness” is simply a metaphor, and a very poor one. As soon as a physical cause is found (such as spirochetes) so called “mental illnesses” cease to be “mental” and become ordinary illnesses. The phrase “mental illness” functions very much like the god of the gaps argument. It’s only meaning is, “we don’t know what causes it”. But it is a great way to call people names while pretending to be serious.

      • Graham Lyons
        Posted June 24, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

        It must be 20 years ago, waiting for a bus, I saw a youngish man with a ‘Jesus Loves You’ T-shirt arrive at the stop. I inwardly groaned but then laughed when I saw ‘Everyone else thinks you’re an arse-hole’ on the back. He was there for 10 minutes. Quite a few people were at the bus stop. No one passed a comment or publicly showed disapproval. This was in London.

        • Graham Lyons
          Posted June 24, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

          Sorry, that was meant to be a reply to revelmundo’s T-shirt comment above.

          Jamie, you’ve made a good point.

      • Posted June 24, 2013 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

        Thank you, Jamie. I don’t know why Mr. O2generate is so convinced he’s a pioneer in the fields of psychiatry and neuroscience. I suppose he thinks his new diagnosis will make it into the DSM VI.

  16. Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Ya know, those who believed the “Giant Squid” was real, and not just imagimary were also called “fools.”

    Just saying.

    • Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      Cite? Reference??

      I do NOT for a moment believe the word “fool” was used to describe persons in the episodes pertaining to the observed historical accounts of the Giant Squid.

      I think the word “fabricator” applies to certain persons here.

      • Posted June 24, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        Science also rejected the mountain gorilla as a bigfoot like myth.

        But one thing is crystal clear on this post. Christians do not hold a monopoly on the superiority complex.

        Try again?

        • Posted June 24, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

          I don’t claim to have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe.

          Does science still reject the mountain gorilla?

          Has religion learned to reject miracles? Ask Sanal Edamaruku.

          • Posted June 24, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

            Liberal atheists are the worst. They tell 90 year old women who walk a mile to church that they are stupid, because it gives them a little comfort from the nervousness that comes along with dying, whilst simultaneously arming the Islamic rebels in Syria, and negotiating with the Islamic Taliban in Afghanistan, in other words, rolling over for Islam.

            • Posted June 25, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

              Liberal atheists are the worst.

              Oh hello there, Dr. Sacks.

    • darrelle
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      That’s funny. (:

    • steve oberski
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink


    • Rob
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      And then evidence was presented.

      Evidence please. Put up or shut up.

  17. Kevin
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    To your correspondent:

    First off, Sacks is no moderate.

    Second, the “concern” over tone is noted.

    Third, why don’t you take your “concern” about tone over to Rabbi Sacks, who started the whole thing by declaring gnu atheists to be ignorant gits. Why don’t you chastise him that the proper place for his invective is against religious fundamentalists?

    • darrelle
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Because he is a high ranking Man Of Faith™.

    • Dena
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      I too hesitate to call Rabbi Sacks moderate.

  18. Jim Thomerson
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I’ve seen a couple of instances where people in the right did not treat their opponents with respect. The opponents were able to turn the tables on them and characterize them as the bad guys. If I were to try to educate the Rabbi, I would not start out by calling him a fool.

    • gbjames
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Nobody is trying to educate the Rabbi. He is willfully ignorant.

      Did you read the posting and not get the point?

      Reread it.

  19. Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink


    Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    He is obviously profoundly arrogant,
    remarkably presumptuous. Not adequately schooled (seemingly ill read) and unwilling to acknowledge this.

    There is a certain callousness, and a pre-emption of a full disquisition and open interrogation by a (several) interlocutors.

    How dare you call him a fool?

    • Bob Murray
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink


    • steve oberski
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      Man Look! I came here for an argument.

      Mr Barnard (calmly) Oh! I’m sorry, this is abuse.

      Man Oh I see, that explains it.

      Mr Barnard No, you want room 12A next door.

      Man I see – sorry. (exits)

      Mr Barnard Not at all. (as he goes) Stupid git.

  21. neil
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    It is difficult to be frank about a belief being foolish without implying that the person holding the belief is a fool. But we should try.

    Perhaps the best way to indicate a lack of respect for someone’s religious beliefs is to stop referring to him with the honorific “rabbi” (literally meaning “great one”). To me, he is just Mr. Sacks.

    • Graham Lyons
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      That name’s reserved for ever by Charlie Parker.

  22. tony bryant
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    ‘Faith means not wanting to know what is true’ Friederich Nietzche.

    • Kevin
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

      Faith is believing in something you know ain’t so…Mark Twain.

  23. godsbuster
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Why so shy on the identity of the “European professor”? He deserves to be outed and Sacksed much more savagely than Sacks. Sacks is playing to his constituency; he’s just doing his job as despicable as that may be. But a professor by definition owes his allegiance to truth arrived at through thought processes involving evidence and reason.

    It’s precisely these state maintained intellectual parasites who nourish and nurture the Stockholm Syndrome that keeps the European governing classes riding high on their multiculti hobbyhorse enabling honour killings, medieval sharia, shiny new minarets vandalizing the skylines of the birthplaces of secular humanism – the cradle of The Enlightenment that brought us the scientific revolution. And requiring 24hour security for their politicians/writers/filmmakers to prevent assassination by purveyors of the Religion of Peace®

  24. Greg Esres
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    I would say it’s “not productive” to call someone an ignorant fool. In my view, that sort of label doesn’t accomplish the goal of undermining faith.

    In fact, I’d say the words convey no real meaning other than communicating the user’s emotional state. In all probability, Rabbi Sacks is not an ignorant fool, although he may have made some statements regarding secularism that were not well-thought out.

    • Jamie
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      That’s an interesting point of view. I think that saying, “he’s wrong and it pisses me off” (perhaps because he seems to have a public platform from which to spread his false notions) and saying “he’s wrong, and it doesn’t bother me at all” (perhaps because I am a morally superior and totally in control polite middle class person who never shows emotion if it can be avoided) both say something about the emotional state of the speaker, and both have the same essential analytical meaning—he’s wrong. Replacing “ignorant fool” with your euphemism does not change that meaning.

      • Filippo
        Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        Someone once told me, “We can’t control other people but we can control our own responses to them.”

        What’s your take on that?

        I once heard a fellow reflect on an angry encounter he had with his mother. She called him to his face a “son of a bitch.” He held his tongue in response, though he said that he did toy with the idea of responding, “You’ve got that right.” Perhaps her statement to the son was justified, but not by anything the son said or did.;)

        • Jamie
          Posted June 25, 2013 at 12:09 am | Permalink

          Certainly there is a place for self control. But I think this has been covered pretty well by other commenters.

          I favor flexibility. Sometimes expressions of anger are justified, sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are persuasive and sometimes they are not. I was pointing out there are class attitudes involved (also ethnic attitudes—what seems appropriate to a wasp is different than what seems appropriate to people of other cultures). There’s no magic formula for convincing everyone. I count myself among those who prefer direct speech, as long as it’s not vindictive or incoherent ranting.

          But I really wasn’t trying to arbitrate between communication methods. I was responding to the claim that “ignorant fool” is a meaningless emotive phrase. Where do we get the idea that telling other people how we feel about things is pointless or inappropriate? It is an essential human activity. You can’t have community without it.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted June 24, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

        “he’s wrong and it pisses me off”

        I am uninterested in Jerry’s emotional state*; if he becomes angry, then I have two problems: his anger and the thing he’s angry about.

        Most persuasive writing is more effective if the author leaves his own emotion out of it. The author’s job is to give me reasons why I should be angry.

        *I’m referring to my role as a reader. I’m not claiming a universal lack of interest in Jerry’s emotional state.

        • gbjames
          Posted June 24, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

          Wait a second. He’s supposed to tell you why to be angry but conceal the fact that he’s angry himself? That makes little sense.

          From my perspective, good authors who are angry express their anger persuasively by molding their emotional state with reason into a good argument, not by pretending they aren’t angry.

          Anger us an important part of persuasion and has a role to play. You may want to check out Greta Christina’s comments on the subject:

        • Jamie
          Posted June 25, 2013 at 12:27 am | Permalink

          I was brought up to believe just what you say, and I confess that I sometimes bend over backwards to eliminate all emotion from my expressions, especially on political matters. In extended political conversations with my father over the years I have discovered two things. 1) no matter how hard I try, I cannot remove all emotion from my writing. 2) Sometimes air tight reasons and evidence have no discernable effect on my father’s position, while letting him know how upset something makes me occasionally moves him.

          I think there is research kicking about that shows that logic and evidence are not as persuasive as I was brought up to believe.

          Nevertheless, I agree with you that I prefer to read reasoned arguments rather than emotional tantrums. But I think it is possible to appeal simultaneously to the passions and the intellect.

    • Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      “not productive?” Is it possible to dissuade Sr. Sacks from his foolery by letting him know that we view him as an “ignorant fool?” Maybe, but very unlikely. It’ss probably entrench him deeper into his foolery.

      Will it help others who fail to see him as an ignorant fool see him more clearly for what he is? In most probability, yes.

      And it is to that audience that the comments were most pointedly directed.

      One more note: calling someone an ignorant jackass sometimes does have great value. “When,” you ask? 1) When it’s coming from someone whose opinion said jackass respects (or believes is respectful) and 2) If said jackass is at least minimally cognizant of the possibilities of his own ignorance.

      Both conditions must exist for it to have the desired effect – skepticism and questioning of your own perceptions and understanding of reality.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted June 24, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

        “Both conditions must exist for it to have the desired effect – skepticism and questioning of your own perceptions and understanding of reality.”

        I agree that it can sometimes work, but when it can, usually something more polite works, too.

        It can also sometimes work when you call your wife or girlfriend a b*tch, but I do think it does have such a statistically low probability of a positive outcome that one can confidently say it should never be used.

        • Posted June 24, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

          You’re absolutely correct. I must therefore add the 3rd condition that must be met: one has thoroughly exhausted oneself with the nice approach and has made no headway.

  25. Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, I’ve found it hard when I’ve heard people called idiots because of their religion. Think now that it’s because I feel like a fool for being duped so long. Still makes me uncomfortable, though no problem when aimed at those preaching this falsehood

  26. Posted June 24, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    This double standard is absurd. Often religious people call atheists immoral, they call gays perverts, they insult with words much more hurtful than ‘ignorant’- and they get a free pass on grounds of religious freedom.

  27. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Calling a spade a spade will move some in one direction and others in another direction. We should do both the emotional appeal (say, with humor and sarcasm) on one side, and the neutral debate on the other.

    Speaking of emotional appeal, I think this applies:

    Other psychologists do basic research on social marketing. Curtis Haugtvedt hopes social marketers in the field will use what he’s learned about persuasion as a result of his laboratory experiments on recycling. So far, he’s found that emotional appeals–like the famous ad showing an American Indian with a tear rolling down his face as he confronts pollution–work better than cognitive ones when it comes to persuading people to recycle. Emphasizing that “everyone else is doing it” also helps.

    [Italics and emphasis removed.]

    And it goes on to note how repetition works to increase liking. So a consistent sarcasm should sway some if not all.

    Also, it isn’t hard to find people on Dawkins’s Convert’s Corner who, if not swayed by it specifically, has read Hitchens’s “God is not great” during their de-woo process. I assume the content is at least as harsh as the title.

    • Posted June 24, 2013 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      You assume? You should actually read it. It’s worthwhile.

  28. Mike Leegaard
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Professor Coyne I would like to hear your impressions of Lesley Hazletons TedTalk titled “The doubt essential to faith”. It’s worth a listen for her voice, if not the content.

  29. Stan Pak
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I think that “ignorant fool” is proper and inoffensive description of a person who willfully ignores existing evidence and inhabits the world of delusion. It is time to not be ashamed to call things by their proper names.

  30. Posted June 24, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    You can, but I’m not.

  31. Dave
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    In cases like this, I usually consult my own hallowed reference: The Dictionary. One of the definitions of a fool is one who is duped. Therefore, a rabbi is a fool almost by definition. The only problem I have with “ignorant fool” is that it might be a bit redundant.

  32. Me
    Posted June 25, 2013 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    This type of argument is always an issue for me. It gets so old when EVEYTHING must be nicely worded as in ‘PC’ Or else you may hurt soemone’s feelings. C’mon lets operate in a real world! Ppl get hurt and you learn to get over it. With today’s watered down version of everything, we don’t get to REAL TRUTH. And you never get to real solutions. As so many have said before me, lets work within what the actual universe and not the one we want it to be.

  33. Posted June 25, 2013 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Since Rabbi Sacks* espouses and promulgates nonsense and proclaims it to be the truth for a living, he must either be an “ignorant fool” or a liar.

    (*insert Pope/Imam/etc of choice)

  34. Posted June 25, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    [b]”I adamantly deny that calling someone an “ignorant fool” is counterproductive…”[/b]

    You are arguing you have sanction to act in public, as a highly visible atheist, in a manner which you will not allow commenters to display toward each other in this…website?

    It seems self-evident to me that calling Sachs himself an “ignorant fool” is counterproductive.

    His ideas, beliefs, statements etc are ignorant and foolish, yes. Perhaps worse!

    But calling your intellectual opponent a fool disgraces your position, and by your own standards of conduct, standards which are shared by most folks in civilized cultures.

    • gbjames
      Posted June 25, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Definition of ignorant: adjective, lacking knowledge or awareness in general

      Definition of fool: noun: a person who acts unwisely or imprudently; a silly person

      When an opponent is an ignorant fool it is not disgraceful to use the words.

      It may be self-evident that this usage is counter-productive to you but, IMO, you are simply wrong for the many reasons discussed on this page.

      • Posted June 25, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

        There ought to be a Godwin for resorting to a dictionary definition to make a rhetorical point. ( A Webster?)

        Calling someone a fool is a personal attack, which goes way beyond addressing his opinion regarding a particular idea. It is an ad hominem. It indicates that all of his ideas are likely to be foolish.

        Dr Coyne will not allow such behavior by commenters here on his own bl… website. By your argument, perhaps he should change his commenting policy?

        • gbjames
          Posted June 25, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

          No. You should learn the difference between gratuitous personal attacks and accurate descriptions of willfully ignorant people.

  35. Ian Belson
    Posted June 25, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    My thoughts on calling Rabbi Sacks an “ignorant fool”.
    Ad hominems only serve to make people defensive and defensive people don’t listen to reason. Nevertheless his ideas deserve criticism and thus I will say the obvious.
    I believe that he is no fool but an intelligent and occasionally wise individual who is deluded. After all as many have said, “the easiest person to fool is yourself”, especially if you are well motivated to do so. He may be willfully ignorant. He is willfully ignorant because he chooses to avoid the evidence for the genetic and cultural bases of morality because of basically selfish reasons. It is his job to perpetuate Jewish culture and religion. Jewish culture does have emotional, esthetic, communal and historical value.
    Obviously one of the principle roles of Judaism is supposed to be the creation and sustenance of moral behavior. If he were to agree that morality and ethics is predominantly based on or influenced by other then god given rules he would be out of a job and his whole reputation would be ruined. As Jerry would have it (and I would agree) his “free” will to choose other then a religious grounding of his ethics is severely constrained by his self serving motivations and his programming. He can’t follow the evidence wherever it may lead because it leads to dangerous territory for him. He deserves our pity for his delusion more then our derision. The tragedy is that he is an influential “authority” on ethical matters.

    • gbjames
      Posted June 25, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      From where I sit, pity is more disrespectful than derision.

      But that is besides the point. And I don’t understand why the ACTUAL POINT is being ignored.

      Jerry is not trying to convince Sacks. His use of “ignorant fool” is intended to influence other people. It is intended to help broaden the Overton window so that the general populace will recognize the things that Sacks says as being statement made by an ignorant fool.

      People like Sacks are beyond reasoning with. They have abandoned the basic principles upon which reasoned argument has much affect. There is no danger from offending the Sackses of the world by describing them for what they are, ignorant fools.

  36. Chris
    Posted June 26, 2013 at 3:43 am | Permalink

    I like the ring of “sanctimonious git” personally.

    Sums him up quite nicely.

  37. Posted June 26, 2013 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    Wow, I think it’s scary that so many atheists think it’s OK to attack other human beings, rather than just attacking their ideas. When I was venturing out from religious dogma, I was disturbed by some of the venom some atheists employed when arguing their points. When I said, “Hey, why the hate?” I was assured, “We don’t hate people; we just hate bad ideas.” Now that I’m an atheist, I try to follow that motto. But now I’m not so sure others do.

    I just think society functions better when we attack ideas rather than people. I understand about knocking religious authorities off their pedestal, and I can attest to the truth of what Dr. Coyne was talking about when he said that the people who are on the fence are aided by the bluntness of the New Atheists. But it seems to me that if you would call the rabbi’s arguments “foolish” or “absurd” and show why, rather than calling another human being an “ignorant fool,” you could retain the same potent bluntness while also treating human beings (who’ve never murdered anyone) with dignity. Besides being a good way for a civil society to function, you would be attracting those who could use the bluntness without turning off the ones who are disturbed by it.

    • gbjames
      Posted June 26, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      Will someone pass the smelling salts?

      Look. If we were talking about some generic believer, then sure, you’d have a point. Maybe.

      But we’re not. We are talking about a leading public figure who in the business of maintaining willful ignorance well beyond the bounds of reasonable argument.

      The term “ignorant fool” is entirely appropriate when people are being ignorant fools. And if this phrase is somehow equivalent to “hate” in your mind then I really think you need to go look around for examples of what actual hate looks like.

      • Posted June 26, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

        1) Thanks for reinforcing my concerns with your tone. (Wow, is it realllly thattt harrrrd for people like you just to be pleasant people and maturely bring facts rather than insults? If you try it, you may like it!)
        2) I guess when you wrote “go look around for examples of what actual hate looks like,” you missed the part of my screen name Freethinking Jew where it says, “Jew.”
        3) You failed to show how I’m wrong that using facts to show that certain ideas, such as the rabbi’s, are foolish is more effective than calling the one presenting the ideas an ignorant fool. Of course you certainly have that right, and no one’s saying otherwise. I just think you would be doing more for our cause and creating a better society if you went after ideas instead of people.

        • Posted June 26, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

          1. Your concern is noted.
          2. Then perhaps it is you who should avoid throwing words like “hate” around indiscriminately. (Besides which, why should we take it for granted that really are what your “screen name” implies. I’m not actually a social insect, as it happens — even though that’s actually my real name.)
          3. As Karl Popper notes, “No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude.” Argument from authority? Well, I’d respect his opinion over yours. But consider this: “Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.”


  38. Posted August 20, 2013 at 4:18 am | Permalink

    Hi Jerry! Here’s a question: should we be respectful toward atheist ignoramuses?

    Just to be clear, I am both an atheist and an ignoramus, at least with respect to some things. Here are some examples:

    First of all, I only just last week learned what an “acomodationist” is, although not in any real depth, and I’m still not sure how to spell it. I’m not sure if I’m really an accomoddationnist or not, but I think I might be, but I’m not sure.

    Next, I did not actually read your blog post above. I just saw the title and figured I already knew what you were going to say (“yes”, give or take a few hundred words).

    Finally, I am absolutely convinced that you too are both an atheist and an ignoramus, even though I have never read your book and for that matter never even heard of you until last week. I don’t even know if this book I haven’t read is your only book or what. I know almost nothing about you, and yet I am convinced that I know everything about you of any significance: that you an atheist ignoramus.

    Anyway, if you think we should be disrespectful toward atheist ignoramuses, I present myself here to you as an opportunity to walk your talk, right here on your own blog! Come, by all means, express your disrespect for me! I assure you I can take it!

    Now, please understand that if you do accept this opportunity, I will absolutely join you in your talk-walk with my own reciprocal disrespect for you, you know, as an atheist ignoramus. Like I said, I’m absolutely convinced that you are one of these, even though I’m NOT EVEN QUITE SURE WHAT THE WORD IGNORAMUS ACTUALLY MEANS! (I’m resisting the urge to Google it because I want to offer you the maximum amount of ingoramusness that I can — you can thank me later).

    Of course, if you are one of those people who can’t take what he dishes out (I think the word for that is “bully”), I will totally understand. We all have our little foibles, now don’t we?

    In any case, I urge you to act quickly on this opportunity. As much as I am an ignoramus today, I do love to learn stuff and my ignoramusosity tends to decay very rapidly.

    Daniel L. Scholten

    • gbjames
      Posted August 20, 2013 at 5:00 am | Permalink

      Generic ignoramuses deserve some degree of generic human respect. Ignoramuses who put themselves out in the public eye, and political ignoramuses, don’t deserve the same level of respect. And in neither case does an ignoramus’ willfully ignorant assertions deserve any respect at all.

      And that, I think, is the point. Religious ignoramuses have for centuries been granted “respect” that no other arena in human life is granted. They fly under the radar of criticism claiming undue respect only because religion is granted a get-out-of-jail-free card. This is wrong. Religion deserves no respect at all.

      • Posted August 20, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

        Oh, are those the rules now?

        Man, where do you get this stuff?

        Wait…is this another one of those “burning bush” things?

        • gbjames
          Posted August 20, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

          Those are called opinions. No gods are invioved in their generation.

          • Posted August 20, 2013 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

            OK, then, well, thanks for clearing that up! I guess I am now not quite the ignoramus I that I was. Feels pretty good.

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