Monday, May 23, 2011

I promise I’m not stalking Tim Stanley

But he’s followed up his article about raptures on his own site and you can find it here. Gutlessly, he’s disabled comments, so I’ll have to pull it apart here instead.  He seems annoyed and a little surprised that people complained about his article, especially Richard Dawkins.  Faith-heads just love it if they feel they have a legitimate reason to plaster Richard’s picture over their site and complain about him.  Tim certainly doesn’t waste the opportunity.  He quotes part of Richard’s comment, which I wrote about here.  For goodness’ sake, Tim, it’s a short comment, why not quote the whole thing?

Stanley’s article begins with a bewildering story concerning caged nuns who have to be hidden away from the public with a wooden screen.  We’re supposed to think that this is “wonderful".  I have my doubts about this but in any case I can’t see the point of telling the story.  I think he’s trying to contrast his own peaceful serenity with the assumed moral paucity of the people who disagree with him, but it’s entirely unclear.

Anyway, Stanley came home from his sadistic jaunt to “discover that [he] caused a minor storm in the community of politicized Atheists.”  By this, I think he means that a website (Dawkins’ website) linked to it and some people made some comments.  He really is a master of overstatement.

When [the rapture] didn’t happen, I flicked through the dailies to discover predictable joy at the embarrassment of a small group of religious-types.

I’m not convinced that “joy” is the right word. I think we mostly just find it hilarious that people believe such silly things.  I haven’t noticed anyone revelling in the disappointment of the un-raptured, but what’s not to laugh about when large numbers of people believe something wildly improbable for no good reason?  Besides, it doesn’t seem very Christian to deny someone joy just because some other people are probably feeling sad.

I wrote a piece for the Telegraph bemoaning the demonization of evangelicals.

How is mocking people who were convinced of the rapture ‘demonising evangelicals’?  Aren’t evangelicals exactly the people who gloat at atheists because they’re not invited to things like raptures and will end up toasting in hell?  Aren’t they the people who almost literally demonise atheists? 

All we’re doing is gently mocking people for what was demonstrably a monumentally stupid belief.  We’re not the ones ostracising family members or terrifying our children.

Sincerely, I meant to say this: “Yes, it is foolish to try to predict Armageddon, but these people are but one small segment of evangelical culture – a culture which is diverse, ever-changing, and of tremendous historical importance to America.” I concluded that it was mean-spirited to celebrate other people’s humiliation and that greater tolerance should be shown towards a movement that works tirelessly to improve people’s lives. I received one nice email from a gay evangelist; whose very existence I feel proves my point.

Its rather odd then that he didn’t actually get around to saying most of this.  Besides, the ‘conclusion’ wasn’t one.  It was a bald statement, not the inevitable consequence of reason.  And seriously, Tim: you’re really using the “some of my best friends are gay” argument? 

Then he lays, pussyfootingly, into Dawkins:

Grammar reveals a lot about a person. When it’s strictly speaking accurate but one still struggles to decipher the meaning of what has been said, you know you’re reading a sentence written by an academic.

OOOhhh, burn.  Oh, wait a minute, not burn.  For one thing, Richard’s grammar is correct.  For another, if ‘academic’ is an insult then Stanley is revealed as an idiot, especially since he’s an academic himself.  Why then the need for this ineffectual little ad-hom, especially since he goes on to (incorrectly) accuse Richard of that same fallacy?

Then there’s a weird passive-aggressive bit about Richard’s wife, Lalla, which is another strange, rambling tangent.  What’s he up to here?  Is he trying to suggest some discontent between the couple?  Is he trying to belittle Richard by emphasising Lalla’s greatness?  Who can say. 

Stanley mentions two other objections to his work, but he doesn’t deal with those or with Dawkins’ for that matter.  Except to make it clear that he doesn’t like their tone.  He dismisses one blogger’s accusation that he, Stanley, is immature by pointing out that the blogger had a Harry Potter avatar.  He seems to think this is a resounding victory, but he doesn’t address the substance of what anyone said in the slightest.  We’re just supposed to realise they were bad because they dare to criticise him.

People have taken offense in two prime ways. First, they don’t agree with my reading of history that evangelicalism has shaped American democracy.

I’m not going to deal with this.  I’m by no means a scholar of American history and not that interested in it either.  Like most of what Stanley says, however, I find it hard to work out why he’s saying it.  Supposing for a moment that – as he claims – Puritans influenced the forging or present day America, what does it tell us about whether we should respect evangelists today?  The Ancient Greeks believed lots of thoroughly ridiculous things, but their influence on democracy and law can’t be doubted.  Does that mean we should automatically respect anyone who happens to belong to, say, the Greek Orthodox Church?  This is the kind of argument Stanley is making and it is beyond stupid.

The positive role played by evangelicalism was felt during the 1960s Civil Rights movement and is still there today in campaigns for prison reform and debt relief. True, some denominations opposed all those things. But my argument was never that evangelicalism was everywhere and always good – just “complex and nuanced”.

This is disingenuous at best.  The entire point of his original article is that evangelism does good stuff and so should be respected.  He dismisses the bad stuff evangelists have done – and he does it again here – and yet expects us to take the good stuff some evangelists do as reasons to resect all evangelists.  His message is not about complexity, it’s about evangelists being good and atheists being bad.

Second, some readers have inferred – disingenuously – that I think religious people are charitable but atheists are not. Again, the point of the piece was not to attack atheism as a philosophy but to defend evangelicals as human beings. I do think it is in poor taste for some atheists to celebrate the misery of those who thought they’d be raptured but weren’t. (That said, I’m quite glad I wasn’t. I’m not ready to face my bank manager or my priest, let alone God.)

This is a horrible mess of a paragraph.  Let’s deal with it one point at a time.

1. Second, some readers have inferred – disingenuously – that I think religious people are charitable but atheists are not. This is by no means disingenuous.  It’s what the article seems to say.  It might, I suppose, not be what Stanley meant to say, but people can really only react to the words on the page, can’t they?  He baldly states that atheists sit around in hot tubs doing things that he presumably considers reprehensible while evangelicals tirelessly work for the good of the vulnerable.  If this isn’t what he meant to say, then it’s more appropriate to apologise for being unclear than to criticise people for reacting to what he actually wrote.

2. Again, the point of the piece was not to attack atheism as a philosophy but to defend evangelicals as human beings. Not even close.  His article says that we should respect evangelicals because they are evangelicals and because some evangelicals do good things.  There really is no other message I can see to take away from the article.  This is not defending evangelicals as human beings, it’s saying no one is allowed to attack them because they are a member of a particular group which Stanley happens to favour. 

3. I do think it is in poor taste for some atheists to celebrate the misery of those who thought they’d be raptured but weren’t.  I agree that this would be in poor taste, but I haven’t seen it happen.  Stanley (needless to say) doesn’t provide any examples.  The (likely very few) atheists who had rapture parties probably weren’t celebrating the misery of others so much as having a bit of a laugh.  It’s an excuse for a party.  It’s an excuse to highlight how much time and money has been wasted on promotion of this bullshit.  And it’s an excuse to point out how religion can make people believe anything, regardless of how insane it is. But I’m willing to accept that some people might be revelling in the misery of others, so if Stanley can provide me with actual examples, I’ll document them here.

Stanley continues:

This second point goes to the heart of a lot of the criticism my piece received: my critics hadn’t actually read it. At least, they read it myopically – picking out a single sentence (or even a couple of words within a sentence) and extrapolating from a handful of syllables that I favor witch burning and table-wrapping.

Again, he provides no evidence for this at all.  How does he know his critics didn’t read the piece?  He hasn’t actually told us anything about the substance of the criticism he’s received and where he bothers to mention it at all, he doesn’t address it in the slightest.  And it’s rather hyperbolic.  Has anyone really accused him of witch burning or table-wrapping (whatever that is, presumably he meant ‘rapping’)?  Or did they accuse him of saying ‘evangelicals good, atheists bad’, which is what, in fact, the original article said?

True, I wrote a piece that had an obvious agenda. But it was filled with equivocation and cowardly sub-clauses, things that I always put in my writing because I’m careful not to reduce everything to an idée fixe. Yet the anger of the debate about religion seems to have blinded some people to subtle argument, and the instantaneous nature of blogging means that – rather than sit down and construct a thoughtful letter as in days of yore – they are able to type “Fuck you, you posh twat”, press return, and publish it within seconds.

OK, this is a claim we can examine.  Remember when he wrote:

Across the United States, atheists are gathering at Rapture parties to celebrate another day of life on this corrupted Earth. Their joy as Camping’s error is plain mean. While they knock back cheap imported beer and make-out in hot-tubs, thousands of evangelicals will be providing care and love to prisoners, homeless people, drug addicts and the poor.

Where is the equivocation here?  Where are the sub-clauses?  Where, for that matter, is the subtle argument (or any argument at all)?  The paragraph couldn’t be more clear.  He’s patently saying that atheists are vacuous and selfish.  He’s obviously saying that evangelicals are selfless and saintly.  I can’t think of another way to interpret it.  If that’s not what Stanley meant, then he was staggeringly unclear in his exposition.  And he should admit that, rather than accusing people of not reading his article.

To my satisfaction, Stanley finishes on a note of total nonsense:

But I am disappointed that Prof. Richard Dawkins – a professor of Oxford, no less – is capable of similar yobbery. He is a fellow academic after all, and he probably knows just how highly we prize our “respect”. It is our economic and emotional sustenance, and I would never deny it to anyone as easily as he has refused it to me.

What ‘yobbery’ has Richard committed?  Disagreeing with Stanley, nothing more.  Being unable to sympathise with a group of people doesn’t constitute an attack on them or on anyone else.  And whatever else it might be, Richard’s comment was – and this is pretty important – just words

As for academics valuing respect, are you fucking joking, Stanley?  I think what we prize above all is intellectual honesty. This is certainly the case in the sciences and hopefully the same in the humanities.  Respect would never prevent an academic from attacking a faulty idea, perhaps tenaciously and possibly with some vitriol.  We value respect precisely because it is afforded for good reason.  That’s what makes it valuable.  ‘Respect’ isn’t our sustenance, doing consistently good work is.  Stanley’s accusation that Richard has somehow denied him a livelihood is beyond astonishing.  It’s batshit insane and reveals much about Stanley’s integrity.

Stanley somehow doesn’t understand that respect has to be earned, particularly in academia.  Perhaps this is because of his apparently unthinking assumption that religion and the religious should be respected automatically by everyone for no particular reason.

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