Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Archive: A response to charges of militant atheism by Peter DO Smith

I was having a debate (click here to see the full thread) with +Peter DO Smith the other day regarding 'The beginning, or birth, of the Universe'. After having refuted his argument in a civil - if not dismissive - way, he blocked me.

Some time later, +Shannon Roy brought the following post to my attention, and I thought it only fair that I should be able to respond. Of course, being blocked, I am not party to his comments anymore, so I have no choice but to set out my defence of it here.

Rest assured, I shall do my best to let Peter know of its existence, should he wish to respond to it in a free and open manner.

From +Peter DO Smith
The pestilence that stalks in darkness

Google+ is a marvelous platform for reasoned and thoughtful debate with informed people. In the debates we explore alternative viewpoints in a way that becomes a voyage of discovery. The inevitable disagreements are, for the most part, handled in a respectful way, such that we learn from them.

I say for the most part because there is one notable exception, the militant atheists. For a number of reasons they seem to be compelled to silence the voice of religion and they set about this in a way that is noted for its ugliness and intolerance.

Fortunately G+ has provided a blocking mechanism. It prevents blocked people from commenting on one's posts, it hides their comments from view in other posts and it prevents them from mentioning oneself. This is a very useful way to filter out the unpleasantness.

I am compiling a list of people who behave in this way and whose comments are empty of useful content. I believe in tolerant, reasoned and respectful debate conducted in a spirit of goodwill. I also believe that only useful way to handle people who deliberately flout this principle is to block them.

Here is my initial list of offenders. I will add to it as more are uncovered. You are welcome to suggest more names for this list.

+Shannon Roy
+Qufei Xie
+Tris Stock
+Kevin Bjorke

I have many friends who are atheists. I respect their choices and they respect mine. I hope the time will come when militant atheists also show tolerance and respect

Dear Peter,

I should like to respond to your post on Google+, but your blocking my profile for 'ugly' and 'intolerant' behaviour has forced my hand into responding via my own website. I am quite aware that you have not directly accused me of either of these things, but you have accused me directly of similarly detestable behaviour which I will cover later in the course of this response.

You have my word that this response will not contain any lies or misrepresentations, neither will it contain any ugliness nor intolerance. Just the facts, Peter, I assure you. If you feel I have not delivered on my word, please feel free to use the comments section below, or my contact page, to inform me of the errors of my ways.

I feel it is also important to let you know that I am, like you, a believer in 'tolerant, reasoned and respectful debate conducted in a spirit of goodwill'. I am also a firm believer in openness and freedom of expression, hence I shall not censor any responses you care to make to this open letter, nor shall I spare my readers the humiliation of censorship. By that, I mean, should there be any further correspondence between the two of us, I shall add it to this website unedited and in its entirety.

To the meat.

Ignoring your curiously named title, I agree, Google+ really is 'a marvelous platform for reasoned and thoughtful debate with informed people.', and, I too, enjoy the 'voyage of discovery'. As an early adopter of G+, I have reveled in the more mature and reasoned debates I have had with hundreds of new acquaintances from all walks of life that I have encountered there, which makes it all the more unfortunate when some individuals come across a thread and cast a long shadow over thoughtful and informed debate.

You mention the behaviour of one group in particular, that you feel casts such a shadow; namely the 'militant atheist'. Before I go on to analyse what a 'militant atheist' is, I should like to question why you feel that these people 'seem to be compelled to silence the voice of religion'?

You see, I am familiar with the people listed in your post that you felt compelled to 'out'; I am, after all, one of them. I am unaware of any of them (myself included) posting any form of call for the 'silencing of the voice of religion'. For my part, in fact, my G+ profile clearly shows that I am a secular atheist, which means I am committed to, not only allowing, but encouraging all people's views and opinions, and that they should be given equal standing as a right, if not equal weight in action. This deserves further elucidation.

The rights of one person to swing his arms, stops at the end of the nose of another person, meaning that once your right to swing your arms, or speak of your religious standpoint has been asserted, there may come a point where it begins to infringe on another's rights, Your right to that freedom of expression is limited to how your actions infringe upon another's rights. If this were not the case, we would live in an Orwellian society where 'some animals are more equal than others'. I don't know of any reasonable person that would disagree with the observation that having the privilege of being able to swing your arms to the detriment of someone else's physical and emotional well-being is at best, making anapologia for intolerance and ugliness, and at worst, is behaving immorally. So you see, I hope, that I am committed to guaranteeing peoples limited rights to freedom of expression, as it is understood in a moral context that underpins everyone's rights to equal treatment.

Privilege is not a right - under any circumstances - and to suggest that it is, is to say that one does not believe in equality. Such people will often baulk at this, but I feel that merely adds weight to the argument that they are defending one person's rights over another's. In a free society this can never be tolerated, and as individual members of a free society, we must be mindful of others opinions, if not their actions.

With this in mind, I find your comment that 'militant atheists' 'seem to be compelled to silence the voice of religion' somewhat duplicitous. Far from blocking you, because 'militant atheists' want to silence you and your theistic brethren, I think you will find that none of those you accuse by analogy to be 'militant atheists', blocked your account at all. Indeed, you go on to, not only block us (thus putting a silence to your voice of religion yourself), but you proceed to encourage others to do the same. Indeed, it is the whole premise of your post, from what I can gather from it.

You accuse us of ugly and intolerant behaviour. I cannot speak on behalf of my co-accused, but for my part, I tried very hard to contain my posts to civil - if not dismissive - debate encouraging your feedback on the matter at hand. A case in point:

Tris Stock  -  +Peter DO Smith Where did I say in your copy pasta that you made arguments either for or against evolution or the origin of life? I made a comparison to illustrate your foundational and logically flawed arguments. Thank you for highlighting that.

I repeat. How is it I am misrepresenting you?

You speak of dishonesty as if I am not making valid points against your position. You do nothing but hurl ad hominem in my face, disregard the 'meat' of my argument, and you have the audacity to say that I am being dishonest?

Without wishing to sound condescending (I mean that), you are more senior in your years than I, but I can't help but thinking you need to grow up a bit. I am picturing you 'hand waving' in frustration at not being able - or unwilling - to approach my arguments, bandying malicious and unwarranted misrepresentations of me as a smokescreen.

What is your position on the initial conditions of the Universe? And don't fob me off with saying that is irrelevant. I have already made my case for why it is perfectly relevant. Ignoring this is being dishonest. I would like an answer.

This, of all the posts between the two of us, was as terse as I got. I am unable to post your previous responses, because being blocked means I cannot now see them, and whilst you did respond to this encouragement, my response appears to be the raison d'être for your blocking me.

Fortunately, my response covered pretty much everything that you had stated, although I did modify your last paragraph to demonstrate why I believed your argument was flawed. Here it is:

Tris Stock  -  +Peter DO Smith Aha! You appear to have touched on the cosmological thread.

1) "Science is the domain of science"

As you appear to rate Wikipedia, I shall try and contain any references I make to that particular source. Ergo: "Science (from Latin: scientia meaning "knowledge") is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe."

Assuming that we mean the Universe to be everything that can be known scientifically (or epistemology, to give it its philosophical name), then I think to say that science is a subset of its own domain kind of misrepresents the true scope of science. Sure, you can put it your way if you want, but I have to say it sounds like a very belittling method of terminology. 'Rape is the domain of rape' or 'dogs are the domain if dogs' is a tautology that does nothing to define the subjects at hand.

Whilst this point is intrinsic to our understanding of the conversation at hand, I concede that it does not approach the tenet of the conversation. I merely wanted to clarify.

2) "Religion is not a scientific explanation of the world"

I agree. I have yet to see one scriptural concept of science stand up against the weight of modern scientific scrutiny. As George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory, has stated, 'Modern science started in the Renaissance. The bible was written over a thousand years previous to that. How can there be any modern science in the bible?' That is not a direct quote but, I hope, an accurate summation.

3) Re: The argument offered as paragraph two.

This is all well and good, if we make an a priori assertion that the God you wish to assert is, in fact, existent. As a 'proof' or as 'evidence', the argument falls down on this premise alone. But let's look a little deeper whilst we are touching on the subject.

"[If we] imagine for a moment there is a creator [penis]. He created the laws of the universe, He set up the initial conditions and started the Universe (or Universes). From that moment on everything in the Universe(s) will happen according to the laws of nature. From the observer's point of view, from inside the Universe, everything operates according to the laws of nature. To understand the operation inside the Universe one must use the methods of science. It is a natural world, meaning it operates according to the laws of nature, which is exactly what [the penis] intended. From this perspective, evolution is a tool that [the penis] used to create and evolve life. There is no conflict at all between science and [what my a priori assertion of what the penis represents]. Science reveals the methods that [the penis] used to create and run the Universe. There is no such thing as the supernatural. Everything is natural because [the penis] works through the laws of nature, that is why he created the laws of nature."

You see what I did there? 
[1] Of course, I have no belief that the creator penis is the whys and wherefores of the meaning or explanation of existence, but by changing the a priori assertion, your argument can be modified to prove that anything you could (and could not) imagine is the prime mover or uncaused cause. You may call it 'God', but others will call it 'the penis', 'Allah' or 'The Invisible Pink Unicorn'. It does not make for a compelling argument.


I am not convinced that your argument holds any water, unless you equivocate your understanding of 'God' into terms that are so meaningless and devoid of recognisable definition into something that is quite unlike the Catholic perception of God.

I do I hope I haven't been snide or mocking, nor that I have misrepresented you or your argument. I can understand that some people might say that my use of 'the penis' was just that, but in my defence, I think I approached your argument in an effective manner; viz. a priori arguments are meaningless when given a different spin in the same context.

As you will see: my tone is civil; I did not misrepresent you; I was in no wise dishonest; I kept intimately to the content you provided and I explained in no uncertain terms why I expressed myself the way I did.

Perhaps you found my methods 'ugly' or 'intolerant'? I conceded it may be considered snide or mocking, but I was more than open about the reasons for making my case the way I did. I still maintain that the methods I employed in refuting your argument were effective, but if I offended your sensibilities, you have my sincere apologies. It was not my meaning. Personally, I didn't find it ugly, and I am sure most people would find it funny before taking offence to it, but I cannot be held accountable for people's right to be offended any more than you can. What we can both do is, try to see the context in which it was delivered. I think if you are to be honest with yourself, you might feel that you over-reacted to an effective, if not tritely put, dismissal of your argument.

Your claim of intolerance, though, is a little more sinister, and harder to fathom. If I were acting intolerantly, I would happily concede that you did the right thing in blocking me. However, I see no evidence of this, whatsoever. 

Indeed, as I have already pointed out, I had to plead with you to answer my objections, and once I had responded to your eventual answer, I feel it was you that acted intolerantly in blocking me - rather than defending your position. Going on to block another three people from the same stream only serves to compound, I feel, your own level of intolerance.

As an aside, you accused me a number of times of lies, misrepresentation or dishonesty, without fleshing out what those lies or misrepresentations were. I approached each as they were apparent, but this was not always the case. In fact, I asked you twice why you thought I was lying to, or misrepresenting, you, to which no response was, to the best of my memory, forthcoming.

The fact that you continued in this line of ad hominemattacks against me, rather than approaching the issues I raised, is reflected in the response I made here:

Tris Stock  -  Without wishing to sound circular, I refer you back to my initial response to your assertion that, "Religion was right, the universe had a beginning.". I said that, "Technically, the Universe cannot have a beginning, in the sense that we understand it."

Everything followed directly from your own words. You went on to give foundationally incorrect observations as a defence of your case, and... well... here we are.

Remind me again how I am misrepresenting you? It appears to be quite to the contrary.

Edit - Do I have to remind you that it was you that raised the issue of initial conditions by introducing (in the same initial post) the primeval atom? Just what is it you are arguing for, exactly? Whatever it is, it is messy and incoherent. I don't honestly think you have the faintest idea what you are talking about. Sorry.

Is any of this really good enough reason to block someone? Did I stifle your voice of religion in any way? Was I snide or mocking? I don't feel I was 'ugly', and I certainly don't believe that I was 'intolerant'. Indeed, this letter invites you to reopen the dialogue, should you wish it. Hardly an act of intolerance, surely.

Godwin's Law

Now, if I may, I would like to approach your usage of the term 'militant atheist'. There is a cartoon at the head of this letter on my website (should you encounter this response elsewhere) that shows how, what you believe to be, 'militant atheists' see themselves. It is a humorous picture of what it is atheists actually do, juxtaposed against what a very few Muslims and Christians do. I have no intention of pulling a Godwin's Law in this letter, but let it suffice to say that for the vast majority of atheists, militancy or fundamentalism is restricted to just the sort of discourse we were having before I was blocked; which amounts to nothing more militant or fundamentalist than the equivalent of a pub conversation.

Yes, atheists can be vocal and belligerent. I am certainly no exception, but then there are vocal and belligerent theists also. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, the key for everyone concerned in a debate, is to try and refrain from (as +Phil Plait [2] would put it) being a 'dick' about it. I may not always be successful in 'not being a dick', but if someone picks me up on it, you will find I will apologise for it if I find it justified.

Now, I would like to explore what it is to be one of those people you describe as 'militant atheists'. The facts are simple; atheists do not believe in the existence of a god or gods, and reject theistic arguments. Some are more vociferous in their rejection of theistic arguments than others, and again, I am certainly no exception. But I think it worthwhile considering our actions within the context of debate. Those of us that choose to engage with theistic arguments, do so because we believe that it is important to share what we understand to be reasonable and valid claims against our interlocutors arguments. This does not make us any more 'militant' than any theist stating their theistic arguments. Please do not confuse dissent with militancy. 


You and I have a debate on the merits, or otherwise, of sandy beaches. One of us takes the position that pebble beaches are better because you don't have to spend time getting the sand out from between your toes when you are ready to leave. The other takes the position that sand between your toes is a small price to pay for the comfort of reclining on a fine sandy beach. Does the 'pebbly-beachist' accuse the 'apebbly-beachist' of militancy because he disagrees with his sandy toes analogy? And as the debate continues, does not the 'pebbly-beachist' also become equally vocal and belligerent to the point of militancy?

The point is, if you want to debate someone, and later accuse them of militancy, it is only fair that if one interlocutor is accused of militancy, that the other equally vocal and belligerent interlocutor is also assumed to be equally militant.

In short, then, I think it a little disingenuous to accuse people of militancy, without implicating your own militancy. I repeat, dissent from another's position is not militancy. It is merely dissent.

Blocking someone does nothing to allay this scenario from being a reality, but it does move one to call the blocker intolerant of the other's position on pebbly beaches (or whatever the debate revolves around).

Further to these points, I should also like to call into question your observation that my comments were 'hollow and empty'. I fear you will have to spell that one out in terms that I can react to, because for the life of me, I cannot observe or recall a single post where your comments or responses were not addressed in full. If you cannot provide me with any proof of this, it must mean that the responses I gave were not to your satisfaction.

I am sorry you feel this way, but the truth of the matter is, just because you don't like the responses you get, it in no wise means that this equates to hollow and empty content. I go to a great deal of effort to read and comprehend people's comments (reading associated links and doing further research as and when required) in order for me to compile as complete a response as is reasonable to expect.

With specific regard to our cosmological genesis debate, I believe I addressed each and every point you made (that was relevant to the subject at hand) and as evidenced above, I have given you a complete and demonstrably accurate refutation of your claims and content. You chose not to respond. That is your wont.

What you did do with this information is ignore it and block me, later going on to accuse both mine and three other's comments as hollow and empty. I put it to you, sir, that not only was your response hollow and empty, but that it was, in reality, non-existent. Your actions with regard to other matters are self evident.

You final paragraph informs us that you have many atheist friends, and that the mutual respect you show for each other is something that you appear to value. I too have many theistically leaning friends and we hold mutually respectful dialogues between us - even sharing cartoons like the one above - but the important aspect we need to isolate here is where that respect is directed.

I am not a sycophant, and will not let important points slide. Neither would I expect my opponents give me a 'free pass' out of respect for the other. If we are having an open and informed debate, I see no point in engaging with someone if they are not prepared to, at least, approach the limits of their comfort zone.

To say that one's respect for someone is dependent on their beliefs is a terribly unfulfilling enterprise, and it is something I would advise people to avoid if they genuinely seek respect for holding the beliefs they do. I am capable of respecting anyone - regardless of their beliefs - if they have the courage of their own convictions allowing them to challenge those beliefs.

In other words, I can respect the individual despite not having any respect for his or her beliefs. To do this with any degree of intellectual honesty, though, it is imperative that challenging comments and responses must be approached. What is the value of respect for someone if they are to be given free reign to selectively avoid engagement in a particular course of debate? It makes a travesty of the relationship, and any respect earned is wantonly cast aside by deliberate and cynical avoidance practices that leaves everyone with an unpleasant after.taste.

Okay. It's about time I wrapped this up. I think the two main threads of this letter relate to one's tone, and portrayal of the facts of the situation. 

Obviously, you have taken exception to my tone, for which I have apologised. As for the portrayal of facts, you will not be receiving an apology. At no point did I misrepresent you, or your arguments, and I do not believe that I was dishonest in any way. You certainly never displayed why you thought this was the case. Also I find that your accusation of intolerance to be ill-conceived and quite contrary to the way you present yourself, but I hope that this letter finds you in a more tolerant frame of mind, so that we may continue to have rewarding debates in the future.

Debating theistic concepts is fraught with problems, it would be a shame to throw away informed debate on a whim. Hopefully, we can move on from this and have a more constructive dialogue in the future.



[1] For those that have not seen the original, this paragraph was copied and pasted from Peter's original comment, with the word 'God' exchanged for the grammatically equivalent usage of the word 'penis'. It is otherwise original.
[2] To see the video of Phil Plait's 'Don't be a dick' video, click here

*** UPDATE ***

I have just recieved a conciliatory message from Peter - who has now lifted my ban - and as promised, I shall post the exchange here.
Peter DO Smith  -  +Tris Stock On your web site you posted as follows:

"but if I offended your sensibilities, you have my sincere apologies. It was not my meaning."

I accept that and I am sorry that our debate reached this pass. I believe we should both push the famous reset button and go forward from here in a spirit of goodwill, in a respectful way. That is my undertaking and I sincerely hope you can join me in this.
Tris Stock  -  +Peter DO Smith Absolutely. I am very happy to move onto a new phase in our relationship. I suspect the ride will be a bumpy one, but I think we will know where the bumps lie in future.
Peter DO Smith  -  +Tris Stock Great, I look forward to some happy debates. If I was in your neighbourhood I would say, let's go for a beer, but instead I toast you with a glass of fine South African red wine - cheers.
Tris Stock  -  +Peter DO Smith I'll take a chug of some Cornish mead instead :-)
With that, I suspect that this post has drawn to its conclusion. I do not know if the other's bans have been lifted, or if he has rescinded his '...pestilence that stalks in the darknes' or not, but they were not my objectives.
My objectives were, firstly, to highlight the unfairness of the ban. Secondly, to point out the duplicitous nature of the 'pestilence' article. And ultimately, to see if I could get the ban lifted.
I think on the whole, this enterprise, whilst very draining on my time, has been worth it, and I very much look forward to engaging Peter in discussion again in the future.

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