Religious And Irreligious Hyperbolism: Pushing the Boundaries of Social Acceptability?

How many of you have, on occasion, been simply baffled at the extreme views of leading figures of religion (and, significantly, nonreligion) across the globe?

What is it that makes evangelists like Pat Robertson think it is okay to come out with statements like this?

“If the widespread practice of homosexuality will bring about the destruction of your nation, if it will bring about terrorist bombs, if it’ll bring about earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor, it isn’t necessarily something we ought to open our arms to. ”
Pat Robertson, The 700 Club television program, August 6, 1998, on the occasion of the Orlando, Florida, Gay Pride Festival 1998, see here.

What is it which inspires Richard Dawkins to overstate his case with such hyperbolic statements as this (which Dawkins himself acknowledges as one of the most oft-quoted examples of a somewhat intentional hyperbolism):

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Those of us who are school from infancy in his ways can become desensitised to their horror.” (Dawkins 2007, 51)

How can Osama Bin Laden feel justified in coming out with the following statement, with which the majority of Muslims would wholly disagree?

“We — with God’s help — call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.”

Osama Bin Laden (February 23, 1998). See here.

Now, clearly I am not equating these statements in any way, shape or form. Some of the views expressed above have the capacity to cause offense, some to cause people to lose their faith or their self esteem, and others which can have very drastic consequences for the lives of others. However, these statements (and countless millions more to which I don’t have quick and easy access) are all united in their distinct hyperbolism. They vastly overstate their position, and seemingly alienate not only those of opposing viewpoints, but also those within their own ‘community’ who hold more moderate views.

Why on earth do people do this? A potential answer, which I had never really thought about, jumped out at me from the pages of an article I was reading recently. Referring to the extreme positions taken by a number of high profile atheists (my area of expertise), Samuel Bagg and David Voas write:

“It doesn’t mean that every one of their followers will then become atheistic, just that the extreme position must be publicly taken in order to legitimise the moderate ones. In a process that Voas has earlier termed “diffusion”, the traits of a few visible figures may be copied by many others, and even if the original character and meaning of the trait is lost in the process, the copies will stand on their own. For example, cultural diffusion occurs when celebrities stop wearing fur because it represents cruelty to animals, and people on the high street stop wearing it because it is now unfashionable.” (Bagg and Voas 2010, 105)

This makes an awful lot of sense. Although I am not sure how conscious this would be on the part of leaders taking extreme standpoints, you can certainly see how pushing the boundaries of acceptable dialogue to greater and greater extremes allows more moderate positions to fill up the space in between. With every documentary that Dawkins makes for Channel 4, the message of contemporary atheism gets a little bit more socially acceptable. People may not buy into any of it, but they start to realise that smart people are out there saying very extreme things about religion, therefore it is okay to hold much diluted versions of those positions.

It also says a lot about the power of celebrity endorsement. Think of Tom Cruise and John Travolta in the Church of Scientology, or of Madonna and her Kabbalah. These are minority religious positions or movements which receive major attention and endorsement from individuals who are very publicly visible. Although many of us would like to think that we were not influenced by celebrity endorsements, I wonder how effective this sort of thing is?

A very tangible example that I can think of is the emergence of Darwinian evolution as a sort of meta-narrative for the contemporary atheistic cause. At a recent workshop I attended, Matt Sheard (Birbeck College, University of London), whose work focuses on Working Class Atheists in Britain (1900-1980) suggested that only two of his 70+ sources made any reference to Darwin in their personal atheistic ‘testimony’. Whilst I don’t have any statistics or references to provide, I think that most would agree with my subjective impression that Darwin is a BIG deal in contemporary atheism. One highly plausible suggestion that we discussed on the day was that Dawkins et al have done a remarkably good job in bringing Darwinism to the masses, and through constantly talking and writing about it have diffused this enthusiasm throughout contemporary atheism, and wider society at large. Whether a positive or negative, atheism lacks the overarching narratives which are bought into upon religious conversion or a religious upbringing… this focus on Darwinism, to some extent brought about by the leading figures of the contemporary atheistic cause, could be providing a very valuable function for the movement at large.

Personally this is something that I can totally relate to. I am going to say something potentially controversial – “I do not care about Darwin”. I just don’t. This doesn’t mean I don’t accept evolutionary theory. It also doesn’t mean that I don’t think it is a very important scientific advance which has benefitted humanity in innumerable ways over the past 150 years. However, I am not a scientist. I don’t want to read about it. I don’t want to hear about it. There are plenty of other things which I find much more interesting. However, the simple fact that I know what I know about evolutionary theory, that I consciously weigh the evidence and make a decision, and that I know that it is significant is for the most part down to the diffusion of that message throughout the contemporary atheistic milieu.

So… the next time you hear a celebrity or a religious or world leader making extreme statements and find yourself confused as to why anyone would expound such views, take a moment to think: “What does the presence of that position in the public domain do to the boundaries of socially acceptable positions?” Attitudes can change for better and for worse. It just may be that some of these extremely articulated positions aren’t as ill-conceived or naive or insensitive as might first appear. They may be part of a shrewd and well-thought out publicity campaign. And even if this is not the conscious purpose which they serve, with time they can shift the cultural barometer in their favour.

References:

Bagg, Samuel, and David Voas. 2010. The Triumph of Indifference: Irreligion in British Society. In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 2: Global Expressions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, 91-111. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Dawkins, Richard. 2007. The God Delusion. London: Black Swan.

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

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