Blame and intent

Some believe that intent of a person does not matter when considering whether someone should be considered blameworthy for using particular language or behavior which is associated with another claiming offense. This piece will explore the concepts of blame and intent and argue for a more skeptical, open-minded approach which individuals should use rather than assailing others with endless choruses of ‘intent is not magic.’

The phrase ‘intent is not magic’ is used by individuals who seem to believe that the feelings and beliefs of a person who is a recipient of a message, rather than the intent of the individual, takes priority. Rather than feeling compassion for others and maintaining an open-minded attitude, some are quick to assign blame and even malicious motives while disregarding the stated or unstated intent of individuals who are believed to be acting in an immoral fashion.

Can we justly hold individuals blameworthy for something which was outside their conscious or unconscious awareness especially if the individuals could not be expected to know particular information? It’s important to understand that while we might consider language or behaviors to send denigrating messages, others may not for some of the following reasons: lack of education, varying cognitive ability, lack of knowledge about particular topics, lack of exposure to persons of different backgrounds/cultures, and differing values or worldviews.

If someone could not possibly know — for whatever reason — that a particular behavior may be construed as offensive, it is inappropriate to assign blame to that individual. Ignorance, in many cases, can be an ‘excuse’ from blame. How would I be expected to know, for instance, that my wearing of headphones while sitting near someone on public transportation is construed as a sign of disrespect? After all, my intent was not to send unwelcoming messages to others, but rather was to enjoy my transportation experience as much as possible while being preoccupied with my own thoughts. Perhaps I am introverted and/or unwilling to speak with strangers on buses. Perhaps I wanted to listen to a recorded class lecture to prepare for an exam.

Claiming offense is often, if not always, extremely subjective. Anyone can claim offense following another person’s words or behavior and, in that process, hold others to unrealistic expectations. Can someone justly claim offense, for instance, because another person placed chewed bubble gum in a napkin rather than directly in a trash container? Clearly some cases of claiming offense can be quite irrational.

Even worse, if claiming offense is entirely subjective (if there is no standard whatsoever by which to justly claim offense) it would be unfair to assign blame to any individual for any given reason because the person could not avoid offending others. How would a person know how to act in the presence of others so to preserve harmony? Speaking to someone with open body language could be considered offensive while, at the same time, speaking to someone with closed body language could be considered offensive. There’s no way out; it is unfair to assign blame when it is impossible for someone to avoid blame.

Misunderstandings — whether in speech or behavior — can result in complicated social interactions when, because of flawed perceptions or a lack of knowledge about a particular topic, persons believe others are being intentionally rude.

Take the time to self-reflect, especially after a ‘triggering’ encounter, and exercise some open-mindedness by asking yourself some of the following questions:

  • Years or months ago, would I have claimed offense when put in this situation?

If no, this shows that persons can be ignorant – just like you were in the past. Because of exposure to new information or a cognitive shift, your way of looking at the world has changed. Can you exercise some empathy, offering a benefit of the doubt, and not automatically see others as blameworthy? Would you have considered your ‘past self’ blameworthy when, you through no fault of your own, weren’t exposed to particular information?

  • Am I picking fights with people? Am I approaching a situation in a confrontational manner?

We may be more likely to claim offense when we are trying to find fault with others or believe others are acting with malice when this isn’t actually the case. Is the world really out to get you? Are people really intentionally being mean to you?

  • What are some other ways I can think of the situation?

Develop alternative hypotheses to explain why a person acted in a particular fashion. Might they have meant to convey no offending messages? Might the person be having a bad day? I won’t, for instance, become angry when someone rushes ahead of me to get on a bus. Perhaps they were in a rush or wanted to escape the cold weather.  Was the person attempting to be nice to you [and perhaps was trying too hard]? I won’t, for instance, become angry when waitresses call me ‘honey,’ ‘babe,’ or ‘sweetie.’ Perhaps they are trying to make customers feel welcome and appreciated while they provide good customer service.

  • Can a person disagree with me and — regardless of whether their assessments are correct or incorrect — not be a horrible person?

Some seem quick to unfairly construe disagreement or opposition to particular ideas as hatred of persons. All who oppose gay marriage, some believe, must hate homosexuals. All who criticize Islam, some believe, are ‘Islamophobes.’ All who do not think the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is good legislation, some believe, hate women. All who want to cut social programs, some believe, hate poor people…

Consider the possibility (and the reality) that people can hold different opinions than you hold and not be horrible people. Perhaps the person who opposes gay marriage does not want the government involved in any marriages, so she opposes all forms of government-sanctioned marriage. Perhaps those who openly criticize Islam might believe that Islamic beliefs are not grounded in reality. Perhaps people think VAWA is a discriminatory piece of legislation because it does not provide services to men. Perhaps people believe social programs foster dependency and are often exploited by persons who ‘cheat the system.’

All of these people can even be wrong about their assessments and still not be horrible people. Let’s not arrogantly assume that all of our ideological opponents are moral monsters.

I am extremely skeptical when the phrase ‘intent is not magic’ seems to convey, as it often does, that there is no excuse for the behavior of individuals who are associated with others claiming offense. Giving others benefit of the doubt and having an open-minded attitude — rather than hastily and unfairly assuming others to be blameworthy — should be a more productive and charitable approach.

Future pieces may explore when it is appropriate to assign blame and malicious motives to others and how to productively engage those whom we disagree by identifying behaviors we consider to be offensive in a non-confrontational manner with an aim for education. Considering that, please leave your comments below. Don’t assume I am a horrible person because you disagree with me or because I might have not considered something :)

Microaggressions atheists experience

Derald Wing Sue

Derald Wing Sue and David Sue — in their book Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice — defire ‘microaggressions’ as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to a target group” (p. 150). They further explain microaggressions as being subtle, automatic, unintentionally, and unconsciously enacted. Absent Sue and Sue’s list of examples are atheists. What are some microaggressions atheists may experience?

Sue and Sue, in table 6.1 (p. 156-160), provide several examples of microaggressions and messages. One such example is that a person saying “You only got into college because of affirmative action” sends a message that a person isn’t smart enough to get into college.

I’m skeptical of many examples of microaggressions Sue and Sue list (and the concept itself) because the ‘messages being sent’ seem extremely subjective; not all people would feel denigrated upon hearing a certain message. For instance, Sue and Sue say that people who utter “Merry Christmas” as a universal greeting send a message that one’s religious beliefs are not important and that everyone should celebrate Christmas. I don’t take offense or feel denigrated when people wish me a merry Christmas, but rather consider it a tiding of joy.

Which microaggressions have I, as an atheist, experienced? What messages have I felt being sent?

  • Microaggression: “You just haven’t searched hard enough for God”
  • Message: You haven’t considered the arguments and reasons people give for belief in God; your atheism is not the result of an intellectual journey.

When people utter variations of this microaggression, I feel slighted because my journey to atheism was a result of intellectual reflection, study, and interaction with theistic arguments. I make an effort to keep up-to-date on arguments from religious believers to keep myself honest. I have participated in recorded formal debates. I was raised within a Roman Catholic framework; I went to C.C.D. classes, received sacraments, was an altar boy, and was a reader at masses. I am not an atheist because I haven’t ‘searched hard enough for God.’ I am an atheist because of an intellectual journey.

  • Microaggression: “Atheism is just a phase you are going through” / “You’ll believe what you get older”
  • Message:  You haven’t really explored the issues at hand. Your naivety has lead you to be an atheist and you can’t properly call yourself an atheist.

This microaggression is similar to “you just haven’t searched enough for God.” Rather than addressing any arguments, the person attempts to discredit the individual – seemingly disqualifying them from holding a position because of age, life experience (or lack thereof), or anger.

  • Microagression: “Sharing your views is intolerant of religious believers.”
  • Message:  Religious believers are welcome to share their views on any given issue, and that is OK, but atheists simply aren’t welcome to share their views – they are not afforded the same respect as religious believers.

This microagression sets a double-standard in which the ‘preferred’ belief is permissible while the ‘non-preferred’ belief’ is not. Religious believers not only have a moral right to share their beliefs, but are afforded some sort of ‘protection’ from dissent. Religious beliefs are assumed to be the norm while atheists who question religious beliefs are assumed to be acting in an immoral fashion – they should just sit down and shut up.

Not all atheists will respond to certain microagressions in similar ways; some might feel denigrated, slighted, or not at all bothered. Personally, I seldomly become angry and often believe that religious persons who would utter microagressions mean well and don’t know better. I take time, on some occasions, to explain why their microagressions are based on faulty reasoning and hardly become emotional.

What are some microaggressions you, as an atheist, have experienced? How do the above microagressions I listed make you, as an atheist, feel? Are you a religious believer who may have uttered some of the microagressions I have listed? What was the response you received?

Can a skeptic be a mental health professional?

In recent months, some have expressed concern with my chosen field of graduate studies – Mental Health Counseling. Throughout some interactions with some proponents of ‘alternative medicine,’ truth relativism, religious ideologies, and even some who profess to be skeptics, I have been told that I should reconsider my scholarly pursuits because I am not fit to be a mental health professional.

I have been told that I do not ‘respect’ others’ beliefs and thus would be unable to be an effective counselor because of various philosophical stances I hold. I believe that persons who voice this person lack knowledge pertaining to counseling.  Counselors, being aware of their beliefs and resolving to maintain a position of ‘value neutrality’ on particular issues, can be effective mental health professionals.

Counseling sessions should not be ‘philosophical boxing rings’ in which counselors ‘impose beliefs’ and/or debate their clients. It’s simply not the place.

Listen to a recent Youtube video I uploaded further addressing this topic:

Imposing, forcing, and pushing beliefs

Discussions with proponents of theistic religions, from my experience, can often be difficult to ‘get off the ground’ because of various ‘conversation stoppers.’ Rather than addressing objections and questions being voiced concerning specific claims, variations of ‘I have a right to my own opinion’ and ‘respect my beliefs’ (which I discussed in an episode of the NEPA Freethought Society Podcast) may be voiced in addition to other phrases such as ‘imposing beliefs,’ ‘forcing beliefs,’ and ‘pushing beliefs’ …which seem quite slippery. What do these terms mean? Are they properly used? Is it possible to ‘force a belief’ on others?

Imagine a liberal religionist — one not content with vocal proponents of a theistic religion who may also dislike fundamentalist stances on ‘social issues’ such as opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and contraceptive use — who identifies with a religion but does not consider their religious identity to be of great concern. This person, if her beliefs are challenged, may quickly and glibly say “I don’t like when people force their beliefs on others. I just don’t like talking about my beliefs because I don’t want to force my beliefs on others.”

In the first case, the reference to ‘forcing beliefs’ seems to indicate both a dislike of people vocalizing their religious beliefs, in whatever manner, and some sort of moral judgment – it is immoral to talk about religious beliefs because this, in some way, seems to interfere with one’s ‘choice’ and perhaps even may be ‘intolerant.’

There may be moral objections to vocalizing religious beliefs. Perhaps indoctrinating children is unethical. Certain instances of invoking religious beliefs in a therapeutic setting would be unethical – such as a counselor telling a client that she needs to repent of her sins and give herself to God before continuing therapy sessions. Disclosing too much information about religious beliefs, or evangelizing, would be unethical in some or most work settings. Placing conditions on persons’ employment such as ‘attend my church or you are fired’ would be unethical. Various ‘everyday conversations,’ though, containing religious beliefs, seem not to be unethical.

There may just be a ‘place and time for everything,’ but should it be the case that merely talking about beliefs, in all or most instances, is an immoral act by which one is ‘forcing’ or ‘pushing’ a religious belief?

Questions of ‘free will’ aside, it seems to be the case that people just don’t reconsider beliefs they hold following an encounter with someone voicing a particular belief or engagement with particular ideas. As skeptics should know, most people — including skeptics — can be quite stubborn and prone to believing that their beliefs are justified and true. Considering this, it seems to be the case that one cannot force someone to believe something following a simple exchange or brief encounter with an opposing view. If this is the case, the phrase ‘forcing beliefs,’ when used to describe a simple exchange of ideas, appears to be vacuous.

All of this aside, I am extremely skeptical of those who consider all or most cases of critical discussion concerning religious beliefs to be ‘forcing beliefs’ – and it is especially bad if coupled with an objection to a discussion taking place.

As an atheist who is no stranger to confronting religious believers when appropriate, I have been accused of ‘pushing beliefs’ or ‘forcing beliefs’ in some situations – many of which were quite innocuous such as mere questions concerning others’ beliefs when they happened to initiate a discussion about the beliefs.

I have even heard some atheists saying that they aren’t open about their atheism because they don’t want to ‘push beliefs.’

Is vocal doubting really a ‘pushing of beliefs?’ Should skeptics or atheists refrain from vocal doubting? I think not.

Are the people who hear my objections and questions so intellectually flaccid that their own ideas, presumably cherished and held for some time, are somehow being ‘violated’ or ‘imposed open’ to the effect of being unable to disagree with me and compelled to believe whatever I happen to believe about a particular topic? I think not. I hope not (although it would be nice to see less credulity abound…).  [If this is the case, college professors and people who share controversial opinions must be moral monsters!]

Question those who inject the phrase ‘forcing beliefs’ into a discussion. Ask for some clarification. Insist that there this is not a sufficient ‘reason’ for stopping a conversation or otherwise not engaging in discussions to begin with.

Have you experienced situations in which people used the phrases ‘pushing beliefs’ or ‘forcing beliefs?’ What do you think the phrases mean? Are there applicable uses of the phrases? Sound off below.

Value-free atheism

Earlier today, Massimo Pigliucci, writing for his blog Rationally Speaking, noted that atheism is “not a philosophy” and “we should stop pretending that it is.” Further elaborating, he wrote,

When atheists are concerned that their position is perceived as being only negative, without any positive message, they shouldn’t really be worried, but should rather bite the bullet: a-theism simply means that one lacks a belief in god(s), and for excellent reasons. It is akin to a-unicornism, the lack of a belief in unicorns. That lack of belief doesn’t come with any positive position because none is logically connected to it.

The definition of the word ‘atheist’ — a person who lacks belief in any gods — is often misunderstood by many religious people who, at least from my experience, say, for instance, “It takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to be a believer” or “Atheism is just another religion.”

Confusion concerning the word ‘atheist’ isn’t only limited to religious persons. Some atheists across the blogosphere seem to couple certain ideological positions with atheism — arguing that atheism leads to particular positions or that atheists should hold particular positions — although atheism does not lead to, as Pigliucci described, any sort of positive position. It even seems that, in some cases, persons are attempting to ‘hijack’ the term ‘atheism’ by affixing their particular ideological positions.  Read More