“Why won’t you die?”
“Beneath this mask there is more than just flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea...and ideas are bulletproof.” – V in V for Vendetta
I’ve been coming across a recurring theme when perusing the social media of New Atheist who are desperately trying to seem compassionate while dismissing the foolhardy beliefs of theists; the theme that people deserve rights or respect but that their beliefs or ideas do not. I seem to keep hearing, “People have rights. Ideas do not.”
My first question is this: How do you divorce beliefs or ideas from the people that hold them particularly when beliefs or ideas make up the core of a person’s identity? Many people identify themselves along the lines of their beliefs, such as being Christian, Jew or Muslim but also along national, ethnic or social lines. If you give no rights to ideas or have no respect for the ideas a person holds, exactly who or what are you extending rights or respect to? Should we have extended rights or respect to Adolph Hitler the being as divorced from his genocidal tendencies? ‘Cause that’s where the argument winds up going.
The problem is this: Once you try to divorce people from their beliefs and ideas, the rights and respect left to bestow are upon the shell of a human being. As long as more than one person is around, there exists a social construct from which people set themselves apart from the other person (that is, identity). If that ability to form an identity is removed, all that is left is a biological human being who for all intents and purposes might as well be an empty shell. In trying to deny identity – or at least an identity New Atheists do not like – is to deny an aspect of humanity that people often use to position themselves in a special place within the animal kingdom. I find it peculiar that (liberal) New Atheists want to bestow rights and grant respect to the biological entities that people are while at the same time denying that a fetus is a person or that it is okay to terminate a brain-dead patient. What is a person? we are inclined to ask New Atheists. There appears to be an inconsistency in the New Atheist line of reasoning regarding rights and respect (at least when the reasoning is taken to its fullest extent).
I contend that beliefs and ideas are equally important if not more important than the people who hold them.* First, because as I’ve implied, people are their beliefs and ideas so long as there are social interactions. Moreover, when people put their beliefs and ideas into action, beliefs and ideas exit the realm of abstraction and into the realm of recorded history. We also tend to remember people for their beliefs and their ideas instead of the people as mere biological entities.
[*But not by necessity since people are not important by necessity. Refer to my blog Why I Am Not A Humanist for clarification.]
Second, I have to wonder, where would the world be without beliefs and ideas? The answer to that question is a double-edged sword, of course, as without beliefs or ideas, human beings would have never invented the wheel or religion. In the case of religion, look at what happens when some people, such as ISIS, with particular beliefs or ideas do not afford any rights or respect to the beliefs of others; personhood is withheld from a victim and a beheading or sexual slavery is the consequence. It is easy for New Atheists to say that they don’t have to grant rights to or respect theistic beliefs and ideas, but granting a person rights and respect is surely a difficult thing to do when the theist’s beliefs and ideas are dismissed. Kindly reference pretty much all of recorded history if you don’t believe me.
Granted, it seems obvious that some beliefs or ideas are more valid than others but how do we choose which are important and which are not? We can easily say that freedom is a good idea that should be granted some rights or respect, but most of us are saying that from the position of relatively free people with no one to club us for agreeing. Naturally, we also have to ask exactly how free we are supposed to be to retain any hope that freedom is indeed a good idea. But, you never see New Atheists – or anyone else for that matter – getting down to these kinds of nitty-gritty details. If there are any difficulties in the New Atheist assertion that beliefs and ideas should be formed only when there is suitable evidence for them, they are such that beliefs must always be open to revision (easier said than done) to say nothing of the difficulties in trying to determine exactly when an inference based upon evidence is deemed justifiable. I would also challenge any New Atheist to prove that all the beliefs they hold are warranted by evidence. To this New Atheists will likely reply that most of the beliefs or ideas people hold are harmless until certain – particularly theistic – beliefs or ideas are put into action. But as I’ve said many times before, there is no historical evidence that indicates a global community of atheists would be any better than the world such as it is now. So why is this belief being held onto to fiercely by New Atheists? But I digress.
I’m not saying rights or respect should be granted to ideas out of hand; certainly ideas – all ideas – should be open to examination and criticism. But New Atheists need to concede that when they criticize ideas, they are criticizing a person. That person may become offended, which is fine since there is no legislation or unwritten societal rule that prohibits all offensive criticism. People don’t have a right to not be offended.* Oh, so I guess sometimes people don’t have rights. Hmph!
[*At least not in the U.S.; the EU is working on it, though.]
“People have rights. Ideas do not,” is in itself an idea which in no way need be granted any rights or respect. It’s one of quips that looks cute at first glance but loses meaning if you think about it for more than a second. There certainly isn’t any evidence for what New Atheists are trying to assert here. Better luck next time, gang.