I have misgivings about wading into Crackergate — indeed, even about dipping my toe into the edge of the pool (which is all I’m promising here) — but here goes.
Next, let me set forth the disclaimers that I’d hope would be obvious:
Issuing death threats (or threats to do bodily harm to a person, or to his family) is wrong. It’s inexcusable (and I suspect in many jurisdictions it’s also illegal).
Insisting that others share your beliefs and trying to achieve this outcome by force or intimidation is also wrong.
Obtaining an item that is of value (for whatever reason) to the person from whom you obtain it under false pretenses looks, to my eye, a lot like theft, and it’s certainly a species of lying. I’m not down with that.
But I don’t want to make this a post about what, in a pluralistic society, is legally or ethically permissible, nor about whether the people on various sides need to recalibrate their outrage either downward or upward. There’s plenty of that in the posts already written on PZ and the communion wafer. I’d rather suggest an alternative framework for approaching such events.
There’s a refrain from a hymn that is frequently cited — often in response to pious people going off the deep end in their emotional response to something they find offensive: They will know we are Christians by our love. The idea is that it’s not what you say or what you believe that will matter to others in judging what kind of person you are, but how you live. If your life is a model of treating others with love and respect and kindness — even when it would be understandable to react to some of the things those other people do by lashing out at them — that speaks much louder than words. If you attribute this stance towards others, and towards steering your life, to your religion, the goodness of the life you are living is better testimony for the value of that religion than any sermon from the pulpit (or from the proselytizers on the doorstep) .
None of this, by the way, is to say that religion is a necessary ingredient of a good and ethical life. In a pluralistic society, we have choices about what variety of religious experience to follow, and about whether to partake of religion at all. But the hymns themselves suggest that religious faith ought to manifest itself in a certain kind of behavior towards others, that belief that is not lived is lacking.
By what will folks know scientists, or “the people of reason”*?
What kind of lived behavior — what kind of regard for others (or lack thereof) — will be the mark of those committed to navigating their world with their rational capacities and their sense organs in the driver’s seat?
Will it be the sort of life that inspires respect in those who witness it or participate in it? Will it be the sort of life that makes people say, “I want to find out how that guy manages it, to see if I could live that kind of life, too!”?
I don’t think scientists or people of reason are more on the hook to lead exemplary lives than are religious adherents. I don’t think they’re less on the hook to lead exemplary lives, either.
To the extent that a reason-guided life is something you feel is worth living, though — that it is something that others could benefit from living, too — it’s worth letting reason’s guidance shine through in your behavior. It’s also worth understanding that the darker human impulses we all have (including, perhaps, doing something for the sole purpose of pissing someone off) have the potential to be labeled as the typical behavior of a person of reason by those who haven’t yet been sold on the reason-guided life.
Pointing out the shortcomings of others is easy. Identifying and addressing our own is where the hard work of living comes in.
*Obviously there are plenty of scientists and self-identified people of reason who are also religious adherents. This makes it messy in terms of running the deconvolution to determine which parts of the life you’ve lived is driven by the P.O.R. vector, which part by the religion vector. The real world, however, is messy.