As the cyclist said to the vicar @CliveAndrews @RevRichardColes

Picture this:

(1) A is a Christian, but …

(2) A is a Christian who is also a theologian, a Christian who’s given it some thought, and been able to show at least some level of intelligence, and …

(3) A is a theologian whose belief motivated them to heroic courageous acts that culminated in their death at the hands of the Nazis.

Now consider that:

(4) Some people “criticise” Christians satirically in general for believing in a god like anyone might believe in a “spaghetti monster” – which would be seen as a stupid thing to do – but this is irony, right? so most Christians would accept such a criticism without personal offence – turn the other cheek, etc. (Though there is no actual “argument” in this criticism, other than to make the “and that would be stupid” point. It’s a free country n’all that.)

(5) Another theologian B points out the historical heroism of A (point 3 above), and ends with the footnote that FSM’s (flying spaghetti monsterists and like people) should take that as “a point of reference” – something to think about – no specific message. That’s it. End of.

Then, digressive twitter debate ensues. ie interminable in short bites, because each bite introduces a new topic, without ever agreeing conclusion of any existing topic. So what were the topics?


Deliberately paraphrasing, to home in on intended issues, maybe this is the assertion from one side : Believing in god or spaghetti monsters is stupid or at least irrational, but this is needn’t be ad-hominem criticism, insulting such people as stupid, unless their personal beliefs in this regard interfere with their public actions.

(Obviously, people hold many beliefs and are motivated to many actions – so apart from some general concept of self-consistency – not all actions are motivated by all beliefs. We’re talking about specific individual beliefs, motivations and related actions.)

So, do individual beliefs form part of their motivations?
And do such beliefs and motivations therefore affect individuals public actions and their intended outcomes?

If no. STOP (Start separate discussion on the individual and free will, etc.)

So, yes, in general actions are motivated by belief:

But do we believe A’s actions specifically were motivated by their Christian belief,
And do we agree A’s – very public – actions were indeed, good, virtuous, courageous and/or heroic say?

(ie not just Christian belief and believers in general, but an individual theologian whose heroic life was very much defined by this fact.) Note there’s nothing exclusive in these statements, about all good actions necessarily being attributed to Christian belief, nor that equally good actions are motivated in others with other beliefs. Just a fact in this individual case.



C : I don’t see the connection [between spaghetti monster criticisms and recognising the goodness of A’s actions]. Criticising religion doesn’t equate to disrespecting individuals such as this, does it?

This is the point – not seeing the connection – does affect the ability to see the relationship between the belief and the “good” action of the individual. The nature of the criticism does affect the view of the individual and the relationship between their beliefs motivations and actions.

So how do we join up the nature of criticism of someone’s beliefs, with opinions (more beliefs) about the quality of them and their actions.

We have a (at least) three things – qualities of people, their beliefs and their actions – individually and collectively, whole and in part. [Now this discussion is 3000 years old. Virtue and the virtues. Old, and knotty too.]

Clearly, objectively, with hindsight, we judge the quality of people in their actions.

At that point we may say their motivations and the beliefs that underpin them are not relevant, so long as their actions appear “good”. (Though even this depends on how much the quality of consequences are indeed apparent at any given viewpoint in time – but for now we may hold that belief and motivation – and any other qualities of the individual – are irrelevant.)

So why then, does anyone criticise anyone else’s beliefs?
Why does anyone care if such criticisms cast aspertions about qualities of the individuals that hold them?

Well, because we do care and we do value them. Beliefs are NOT irrelevant.

We judge historical actions (and expressions of beliefs and motivations, verbal or otherwise, are simply more actions) as a stock of resource in the person – qualities and values – their “virtues”. And we value them because we have to judge who to support, ally with, vote for, be seen having a beer with, now and in the future. A “stranger” about whom we know nothing empirically is either given the benefit of the doubt or treated with caution and suspicion, or typically some combination of the two, until more “objective” evidence emerges. But we value the emerging stock of virtue(s).

C : People “are” – all a mass of countless beliefs and actions. Criticising part is (obviously) not criticising the whole.

Absolutely – individually we are is simply the collection and organisation of the information patterns we hold to date. [Meme theory of individual cognition & consciousness. We ARE our resource of human virtues.] And, before we act, or speak, these are “in our heads” (and hearts).

We can’t criticise (or appreciate) people’s ideas (and their stock of motivations and virtues) independent of the person. They are them. If we care about the person, we must care how we criticise their ideas.

Now for most people with a wide range of beliefs and ideas, it’s perfectly possible to criticise an individual idea (or action or motivation) distinct from a wider complex of ideas. To criticise a part but not the whole individual. Note however for both subject and critic there is some sense of necessary consistency in that complex as a whole. How consistent, and how much effort and competence is put to developing and rationalising that consistent whole, varies enormously – hence the knotty twists of virtue and the virtues, and the examined life. Not all Christians can be theologians. Not all cyclists can be trick-cyclists.

So what is the point of the original footnote.

All beliefs are open to criticism, and criticism includes ridicule (though see separate restraints on gratuitously offensive ridicule beyond the context of satire and irony).

Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (FSM) is of the ridicule variety – suggesting the belief (in spaghetti monsters or supernatural gods) is so ridiculous, it’s a ridiculous – stupid – belief to hold. And of course it’s very general, aimed at the belief and believers as a whole. I’ve not seen FSM make any subtle distinctions between belief, motivation and action; simply that the belief is, and hence believers are, ridiculous. [Interesting development re PZ Myers yesterday.]

If the only thing you know about someone (or care about someone) is their theistic (Christian or other) belief or, in the case of A (and possibly B), that belief is actually their defining belief – FSM ridicules the whole of the person you know. As criticism goes, it’s a very blunt instrument.

If you want to criticise someone’s belief by generic ridicule, you better know a bit more about them, their motivations and actions, before implying insult to the whole person. Criticise with care.

Better still, why not try constructive criticism with someone you do have some respect for. But that’s another story.

C = Clive Andrews @CliveAndrews

B = The reverend Richard Coles @RevRichardColes

A = Dietrich Bonhoeffer #SorrydonthavehisTwitterhandle.

[Footnote – B’s own footnote was click-bait of course, but nowhere did it suggest criticism was out of bounds, nor did it suggest any exclusivity of Christian good. It simply said before you criticise – ridicule – Christian beliefs in general, spare a thought for this individual case.]

2 thoughts on “As the cyclist said to the vicar @CliveAndrews @RevRichardColes”

  1. Hello Ian.

    I have to read and think about this carefully as I respond. I lack your wide background reading and philosophical vocabulary. I know I have trouble with your argument, but it’s taking me some reading and some re-reading to figure out exactly *what* that trouble is. And for that discipline, I’m grateful!

    The parts I think I understand and agree with:

    – There’s a connection between beliefs and actions. Yes – though this may have appeared a point of difference during our Twitter discussion, I do see this.

    – We judge people’s beliefs as part of the whole of judging them and their actions. Yes. Good point. I do see what you mean.

    The points where I think I still have an issue:

    – I disagree that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is merely an exercise in ridicule. Though ridicule is (unapologetically) a part of FSMism, its proponents are also making a point about the unfair privilege we afford religious ideas in places like schools, workplaces and in official documentation. You may not like the way they go about it (yes, it’s often embarrassingly clumsy), but FSMers are not solely in the business of ridicule.

    I wonder if *you* may have decided on the nature of FSM-based criticism based on your own feelings of it, and taken this as a given. You have defined it as “generic ridicule”. This is opinion, not simple fact.

    – Even if we acknowledge the link between a person’s beliefs and their actions, it’s still hard to see the point behind Rev. Coles’ tweet. What *was* his point? Was he arguing (as I understood him to be) that because a belief is widely held to have motivated an individual towards a good, brave or courageous action, we should hesitate in our criticism of that belief? If so, why? I don’t see a logical connection.

    For the purpose of argument, imagine I hold a ludicrous belief – something absurd and flawed and clearly silly (use your imagination – the sillier the better). Now imagine that *directly because* of that belief (in purple-and-green fiddle-playing goats, or whatever), I am motivated to do great things – things that help humanity, save lives and benefit others. Is there a connection between my beliefs and my actions? It looks so, yes. We’re agreed there. But does the goodness of my action lend any more credence to the validity of my beliefs? Does it in some way exempt them from criticism? Bearing in mind my life-saving deeds, should you hesitate before criticising my clearly bizarre belief-system?

    Something else that happened during our Twitter conversation was the input of a fourth (fifth?) party, who brought up the issue of evil deeds, and whether they should follow the same connection.
    Though this person’s language did cause of bit of eye-rolling as Godwin’s Law was invoked, there was a point – namely – if we are to let the goodness of someone’s actions moderate our criticism of the beliefs that led to those actions, how do we feel if those actions were evil? Does the same rule apply? I don’t feel this person’s point was given a fair hearing (perhaps as it used fairly clichéd language). Perhaps you could give it another look?

    There you go. I hope my naive ramblings make a bit of sense, and I’ve got a little closer to expressing how I still fail to see the point I think Rev Coles was making, and I that I understand you were supporting.



  2. Hi Clive, I have two draft versions of a response to this. Any wider “philosophical” reading background is pushed out as asides, not relevant to the very simple point (of the Rev and my agreement). Similarly a lot of you response here is about wider topics (like what FSM is as an organisation) – not relevant to the simple point.

    One version is a longer comment response, another is a fresh post where I can insert point by point to your words. Still editing down rambling drafts. But latest Samira Ahmed post is also relevant. Maybe two separate posts “the point” and “the rest”?

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