Let’s Call Brit Hume’s Bluff

Is this as obvious to everyone else as it is to Chait?

Why should we maintain an informal social etiquette that discourages people from openly disparaging other people’s religions and touting their own as superior? Gee, that seems kind of obvious to me.

Because while I agree that an unprovoked theological attack is the height of douchebaggery in most situations, I don’t necessarily see anything wrong on the merits with having members of different faiths hash out their religious differences on national television.

Look, there are obviously things that do not fall within the scope of legitimate debate. But that’s mostly because those debates are already over. For example: it would be insane to devote network time to debating the validity of Creationism, or the superiority of one race over another. In the former case, that’s mostly because one side of the argument (the world was created by a giant supernatural deity six millennia ago) is false, and there’s an overwhelming body of evidence demonstrating this is so.

In the case of the latter argument, you can split up the case against making it an acceptable part of public discourse into two categories: one is, again, that any claim for the innate superiority of one race over another is an empirical claim that is demonstrably false. The other is that this is a harmful idea, because it encourages groups of people to deny the basic humanity of other groups of people. But I don’t think those two arguments–these are sort of misnomers, but for simplicity’s sake let’s call them the empiricist’s argument and the consequentialist’s argument–are so easily separated. Racism is harmful because it is based on false premises.

Now, I’m fairly certain that there is no God, gods, or other supernatural forces at work in the universe. And I think that to the extent that claims made about any of these things are falsifiable, the empiricist’s argument could be pretty potent. But two things stand in the way of it: first off, not all theological arguments are falsifiable, and second of all, the empiricist’s argument only really works on a practical level if the empirically verified claim is already the broad consensus. In a society where the vast majority of people are Creationists, it’s a bad idea for proponents of evolution to suggest that there should be no public debate. Same with most forms of theism: I’d like the opportunity to try and convince people, and perhaps allow myself to be convinced.

As for the second argument–the consequentialist’s argument–I just don’t find it all that compelling when it’s not supported by the empiricist’s argument. If there’s no public consensus on a particular claim–or a better-than-decent chance that the public consensus is incorrect–then damn the consequences, I think there should be vigorous debate on that matter. And I don’t think ideas that are deeply and sincerely felt should get special dispensation just because feelings might get hurt.

Say what you will about the New Atheists–and it’s true, many of them are smug, contemptible and dogmatic–but they understand this, and they’ve expanded the realm of public debate to include arguments and points of view that have been verboten–unfairly, I believe–until recently.

That doesn’t mean that Hume’s public proselytizing isn’t wrong. But what’s wrong about it isn’t so much that he’s making an argument that should be off limit in public discourse as it is that he was doing so in his role as a FOX News personality; a role in which he’s been cast as an impartial observer. That’s dishonest. But if one of the more overt ideologues (by which I mean one of the ogres) on the network had made the same argument, then I wouldn’t have objected to their raising the subject; just the conclusion.


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