Even Trolls can be Useful for Rational Discussion

Secular Outpost prides itself on hosting serious discussions about serious issues. Many other sites, atheist or religious, are more devoted to dogmatic debunking and ridicule. Over the years, I have enjoyed and benefitted from many discussions with intelligent and informed believers who share my conviction that reasonable people of good faith can differ widely in their views, even on religious questions. Sometimes, a commenter will begin by sounding abrasive, dismissive, or sarcastic, but will wind up as a civil and rational interlocutor.

Then there are trollish comments that are hopelessly rude, dumb, and display an astonishing depth of ignorance. Generally, it is best to ignore these since any attempt at responding politely and rationally would be the proverbial casting of pearls before swine. Sometimes, though, a dumb comment will contain the germ of an argument that, in dressed-up garb, is found in much more sophisticated contexts. In this case, a boorish and fatuous comment can actually be useful. Such a comment can show clearly the fallacies that are less obvious in the more sophisticated versions, where the flaws are often hidden by the more intelligent and coherent presentation.

Here is a portion of a comment I recently got in response to my previous post “After Orlando: We need a Dave Dennis Moment.” My post decried homophobia and its murderous effects. The commenter seems to think that I have no right to make an appeal to human dignity:

“The irony here is that Parsons’s moral dignity is based on attacks on what, in his own view, are merely temporary chance arrangements of mindless material particles. The fact that they somehow generate consciousness for a flickering moment of cosmic history is just an accident and one that will soon be over as eventually the mindless cogs of the universe will extinguish them. The surprise is that anyone who holds this view would imagine that any one particular chance concatenation of matter somehow is more valuable than any other chance conglomeration of matter, say a blob of snot for instance.”

The problems with this statement are obvious. The writer makes gratuitous assumptions about what I or other atheists believe and then asks how his straw man can hold one “chance concatenation of matter” (a human being) to be more valuable than another (a blob of snot). Neither I nor any atheist I know holds that human beings are products of only random events. For instance, over the course of evolution, the variations that are preserved in succeeding organic populations are not selected at random; it is not the case that each variation has an equal chance of being selected. Rather, natural selection preservers the variations that are adaptive, i.e. those which give its possessor a competitive advantage in the ambient environment. Of course, natural selection is an unplanned and impersonal process, as are all natural processes. Exercising maximum charity, I will assume that the commenter meant only to say that I and other atheists hold that humans are the products of unplanned and impersonal causes. In that case, the conclusion about human dignity is a textbook non sequitur. Glaringly missing is a premise to the effect that no entity produced by an unplanned and impersonal cause can possess dignity.

What would supply the missing premise? It would blatantly beg the question to assert that personal dignity can only originate from another personal being. Further, whatever other qualities a theist might hold to constitute or underpin human dignity—e.g. rationality, moral responsibility, consciousness, love and compassion—could count for the atheist as well. The atheist simply sees no reason why a being with such attributes could not have developed from a natural, lawful, unplanned process. Humans could be “created in the image of God,” metaphorically speaking, even if God did not create them. At least, the burden of proof would be on the theist to show why this is not feasible.

In general, what can nature not accomplish? The only possible reasonable answer would come down to the powers and liabilities of natural entities as we have observed those to be. Which such observations would tell us that creatures with the qualities that constitute human dignity cannot be a product of the natural world? Until and unless we have such an account, sneers such as the above quoted comment can be nothing but sneers.

Maybe, though, in the end it would have been better just to reply to the comment with another that is equally sneering, hateful, and contemptuous. It would be good, clean, dirty fun, and I just cannot resist:

The irony here is that Christians base human dignity upon the idea that we are the creation of a primitive, jealous, and wrathful tribal god who is a homicidal ogre that has not the least compunction about committing gross atrocities. They somehow think that human dignity arises from slavish submission to this divine despot, the very image of the arbitrary tyrant. For Christians, therefore, human “dignity” consists in abject groveling before overwhelming power.

Sauce for the gander, and at least as polite and fair as the comment addressed to me.