Active Engagement, or Just Being A Jerk

30 May
by Ted Meissner

Lately, I got embroiled in an online argument (it was hardly a discussion among adults) with someone about Secular Buddhism.  One would think that as someone who’s been an openly practicing Buddhist for nearly twenty years, is active in both the atheist and skeptic communities, and does a weekly podcast called The Secular Buddhist, I might have some familiarity with the topic.

Apparently not.

Though that blogger openly admits that the term secular Buddhist “escapes me completely”, that proclaimed ignorance is enough to determine it’s “a new brand of phony buddhism [sic]”.  And another commenter on the post resorts ad hominem attacks, and general condescension as the way to push others aside and be Right.

Ignorance is one thing, and easily remedied.  Willful ignorance is quite another.  And arrogant ignorance is still another, perhaps the worst and most difficult to disengage because it doesn’t even recognize the problem.

This is the heart of the challenge we sometimes have with people who have a less skeptical approach than ours.  There is an acceptance of ‘facts’ neither in evidence, nor even compatible with an understanding of the natural world.  I may not have seen Earth from space, for example, but have seen enough clear and externally reproducible evidence to accept that it is roughly spherical in shape, and not being carted around on the back of Gamera.

There are choices we make each time we engage with people who have views differing from our own.  We can be outspoken and rude, certainly.  But as Phil Plait shared in his Goals of Skepticism talk at TAM last year, this may not be the most effective means of helping people reach a place of understanding.  We need to keep the goal in mind, and being rude isn’t going to help.

Sure, there are some skeptics who proudly hold up examples of those they’ve angered enough that they’ve stormed off to prove us wrong, did actual research for a change, and realized they were wrong.  That is certainly true!  And also cherry picking the data – it completely ignores the other, much larger number of people who have not done any more research on the topic because they’ve dismissed the person who irritated them, rather than the point of view.   We tend to forget that the view is not the person, and we need to question the view rather than antagonize the individual.

With reason, evidence, and experience on our side, we need neither supernatural agency nor angry words. That is our strength, and we weaken ourselves when we rely on ad hominem attacks to make our point.  Having an open and friendly discussion is much more likely to result in opening someone’s mind to other possibilities.

5 Responses to “Active Engagement, or Just Being A Jerk”

  1. Melissa Lee at 1:02 pm #

    I hope my sarcasm is charming enough to not count as dickishness.

  2. Erica M. at 2:48 pm #

    I read the argument linked to in your post. While I profess a near-zero understanding of Buddhism and so had very little understanding of the substantive part of the debate, it would seem that the poster known as Richard fell into the depths of what we struggle against in Skepticism. Oh sure, we get frustrated and lash out (especially when a refusal to understand the facts of an issue can lead to deaths RE: anti-vaxers), we all are always aware that resorting to name calling and belittling is the well known logical fallacy of ad hominem attack and therefore can negate an otherwise well-constructed argument. I also don’t understand how someone can call someone a moron, say that another’s argument are stupid, and attack someone’s nationality with worn-out stereotypes can then claim some sort of superior understanding of spirituality, Buddhism or philosophy… things to make you go “hmmmmm?” (oh, he did try to soften it with the tired-old, “but I was just joking” REALLY? I would think in order to claim something is humorous, others would need to be laughing too, to validate your claim… I never chuckled- not even a bit)

    Ted, I just wanted you to know that I thank you and honor you for keeping to the high road and that you totally avoided getting sucked into his taunts and derisions. (but, huh! the fighter in me kept reading hoping you would slam his ass back! HEE HEE! glad you didn’t though!)

    • The Secular Buddhist at 6:21 am #

      Thank you, Erica, for those very kind words. It seems Linda has patiently weathered the brunt of the storm of attacks and non-arguments. Maybe they’ll learn.


  1. Darwiniana » Pinback to a ‘secular buddhist’ blog/post -

    […] We got a pingback today to this post, referencing our ‘secular buddhism’ discussion. I was unaware that there is a blog devoted to secular buddhism. And the commentary here seems to be referring to our discussion. I am sorry if there is a conflict brewing here, so let me summarize the issues: […]

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