Effectively Criticizing Religious Belief: Punching Up and Other Rules of Thumb

Aug 22, 2013

For most of my adult life, as short as that’s been, I’ve been thinking about how best to engage with religious believers. Discussions and arguments often seem as if they’re little more than intellectual shadow boxing—we lay out our practiced arguments, talk past our opponent, and take cheap shots to let our side know how committed we are to the team (while the other side does the same). Debates and criticism seem to be mainly focused on performance, as if there is a victory to be won. A look at Reddit’s atheism forum, for example, doesn’t inspire much confidence that the community is aimed at finding the truth, rather than feeling smarter at the expense of believers.

In a sense, religious criticism isn’t special because all criticism is hard. Imagine how obnoxious it can be to have your grammar corrected on the Internet, let alone at a party. But religion can be particularly difficult to discuss since it’s a topic that is deeply personal. Rarely are our senses of identity tied to whether or not we end sentences with prepositions.

There are certain clichés about respect that are often cited as accepted wisdom, but I’m not convinced that they adequately address the issue. The most common is usually stated as such: “believers deserve respect, not ideas.” While this may be true in principle, in practice it is not nearly so simple (the close formal similarity to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” which we rightfully reject, should raise red flags). Complications arise when something is closely tied to our identity—be it our family, our religion, our race, our sexual orientation, and so on—and it’s hard to tarnish that feature while being respectful to the person who cares about it. I can’t trash my friend’s hometown or favorite band while acting as if I’m respecting him, just as a preacher can’t claim to love or respect my gay friend while preaching that his expression of love is an abomination. Religious identities are no less core or salient.

This brings up an obvious tension: religious believers and institutions perpetrate legitimate harms that deserve condemnation. But we cannot assume that any comments, so long as they’re directed at an idea or religion, cannot be harmful to believers. We have to think carefully about what the goal of criticism is, and how to best go about it.  I propose that the concept of “punching up” is useful here.

In humor, “punching up” is the idea that you should try to tackle the powerful, corrupt, and oppressive with your jokes. Making fun of a homeless man is “punching down,” but mocking greed and the callousness people take towards the homeless is “punching up.” The target is more proper, and the criticism and mockery feel less cruel. It’s much easier to respect a believer when we’re punching up than when we’re punching down at them.

For example, I’ve never had any problem with someone criticizing the Catholic Church’s cover-ups of child abuse, or how Mother Theresa treated the poor. Yet we can do that without needlessly ridiculing our Catholic neighbors, let alone with contempt. This is particularly difficult and important when it comes to a religion like Islam, where religious groups abroad commit so much harm, yet Muslims within our country are often the victims of ugly prejudice. Compassionate criticism is mindful of the latter, without ignoring the former. Thus we ought to tread lightly: people can be remarkably talented at rationalizing their cruelties. It’s worth keeping in mind that whatever progress atheists make as a group will be along with, not at the expense of, other religious minorities.

Because conversations like this are often misconstrued, I feel I should back up and lay out a few caveats. Meta-discussions about how to best criticize tend to be dismissed with the label “tone-trolling,” but this has always struck me as a way of derailing or avoiding criticism. Tone-trolling is problematic when it’s used to tell an oppressed group how to handle their oppression better. The analogy I often hear is that, when someone is stepping on your foot and you ask them to get off, they don’t get to respond “you didn’t ask nicely enough.” That said, insofar as atheists are stepped on by believers, it’s not simply because believers have some false beliefs. While no one I know would tell ex-Muslims in Pakistan how to go about their atheism, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to tell atheists here to be mindful of how Muslims might be oppressed in the United States.  

It’s also worth noting that we can’t always avoid offending everyone. Sometimes people are offended by the mere existence of atheists. Yet we shouldn’t therefore believe that gives carte blanche to be as offensive as we’d like. All else equal, we ought to avoid what offense we can.

With that aside, I’ve spent a lot of my time talking with the religious—through personal friendships, interfaith events, and the blog I write for, NonProphet Status—and I think I’ve settled on a few general rules of thumb that seem to make criticism better received, less personal, and more respectful.

During my first semester as an undergraduate, I approached a table offering free books. A ministry on campus was giving away copies of the Bible, something by Francis Collins, a few softcovers by C.S. Lewis, and The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. I chatted with a young minister, a kind man with a sincere grin and floppy brown hair. After he asked me about my religious background (I was honest), he offered a copy of the Strobel book and Mere Christianity by Lewis. We exchanged email addresses and, later that week, grabbed coffee.

He and I met nearly every week for the four years I was an undergrad. We didn’t always talk about religion—often we’d just chat about my classes, video games I was playing, or our families (he had his first child soon after I met him and my brother came in as a transfer student during my Junior year)—but our conversations about religion were remarkably productive. Completely independent of the kindness and friendship he showed me, our relationship was extremely intellectually rewarding.

David Hume has famously said that “truth springs from argument amongst friends,” and I think there’s a lot of truth to that statement. There are a few things that happen when you talk with a friend. First, there’s a level of respect and sincerity given and received. You know that you both are taking care to address each other seriously and honestly, while getting at the truth. There’s no fun in “winning” an argument with a friend (otherwise you’re not too likely to keep that friend for long). As a result, counterproductive and awful language gets dropped (like the phrase “invisible sky-daddy” to refer to God, which is a particular pet peeve of mine since it does little more than convince all listeners that the speaker is childish and incapable of seriously addressing anyone’s real beliefs). Thus debates take on a more charitable character.  

You also have to be appropriately specific: if you say that Christianity is sexist, and your friend practices a form of Christianity that isn’t, then there is a discrepancy you need to address. Is it the Bible that is sexist? Or just certain passages? Are they being interpreted in the same ways? Suddenly the conversation gets more productive and detached from a facet of their core identity.

Of course, it’s not always possible (or even desirable) to be friends with every believer we argue with. But we can apply some of what we learn about effective discussion between friends to discussions with strangers, starting with assuming a level of mutual respect. Unless someone has acted otherwise, it’s most productive to treat them as if they are arguing from good faith. If they are hostile or aggressive then things gets much thornier. How to respond to that probably depends more on the strength of your resolve than anything else.

The most important takeaway, though, is to be specific. No religion is a monolith, and they’re all as varied as the people who practice them. The Islam practiced in Iran is very different than the Islam practiced in Minnesota, and our language ought to reflect this (though this is much less an issue with Christianity, as we shift between denominations easily). I occasionally hear various sorts of essentialist arguments where it’s claimed that religions just are their holy books. That seems obviously wrong to me: no one would say that Christianity is anti-fig because Jesus cursed a fig-tree in Mark, and no one would say that a pro-fig Christian isn’t even really Christian because of their position on figs. I don’t see why we ought to treat passages about homosexuality any different.

A lot of people care deeply about whether their religion is anti-gay, but they’re less attached to whether a specific part of the Bible might be anti-gay. This helps lower the stakes and increase the odds of a productive conversation. Even a gay Christian can talk with you about Leviticus and address why it’s a problem, or why they think that passage might be interpreted differently or otherwise ignored. They might not be so open to a broader and sloppier attack.

Related to the topic of keeping it specific, it’s important not to treat all members of a certain religions as if they’re interchangeable. We saw this recently with the FEMEN protesters who demonstrated outside of mosques across the world, from San Francisco to Paris, after activist Amina Tyler was detained. I should make clear that I believe FEMEN was undeniably on the right side of this issue. Yet I find it strange to treat the Muslims in your neighborhood as an appropriate proxy for the Tunisian radicals who abused Amina Tyler. Imagine that demonstrators in crude Hasidic garb picketed outside of a reform synagogue in LA to protest the Orthodox Jewish communities covering up sex-abuse in New York City. That would be one of the easiest press releases the Anti-Defamation League would ever have to write. The targets of responsible criticism and protest ought to be the people responsible for what we’re protesting and criticizing.

Keeping all of these rules of thumb in mind—punching up, taking interlocutors seriously while treating them with respect, and keeping criticism specific and aimed at the people and institutions responsible—I think our religious discussions will become ultimately more productive. Though I never convinced my friend that God didn’t exist (and he never convinced me to accept Jesus into my heart), we were able to build a strong friendship that didn’t tiptoe around each other’s beliefs. We addressed each other as unique people with unique views, rather than stock-figures to debate with. I learned more about what Christians really believe and that many arguments I used to think were persuasive fail, and he learned how atheists take issues of ethics and value seriously independent of God. Though neither of us “won” the argument, we nonetheless won by getting closer to the truth, together.  


Vlad Chituc is a Research Associate at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. He graduated in 2012 from Yale University with a B.S. in psychology. As an undergraduate, he was the president of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale, now the Yale Humanist Society. He lives with his dog and some friends in Durham, NC. You can read more of his writing at nonprophetstatus.com

Written By: Vlad Chituc
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