“Art thou angry with him whose armpits stink...whose mouth smells foul? What good will this danger do thee?”*

Potentially helpful criticism means calling attention to verifiable mistakes in a person’s facts, actions, or reasoning.

Potentially destructive criticism means offering unverifiable explanations for a persons thoughts, actions, or character.

I am sometimes praised for having the courage to be open, but I don’t see it as courage because unhelpful criticism has little power to hurt me and therefore little power to inhibit me. I’ll give an example of such criticism by relating an incident that occurred in a philosophy class in 1968. Our homework had been to read a passage from Nietzsche. I enjoyed the reading and looked forward to the discussion, so I was disappointed when the professor dismissed Nietzsche in the space of three minutes by claiming that his overman philosophy was an “obvious attempt to compensate for physical frailty.” Had Nietzsche been in my class, heard what the professor said, and taken it to heart, he might have gone away feeling embarrassed and exposed. He might have told himself that, since he was frail, the professor must surely be right. Yet, even if the professor had been right about Nietzsche’s frailty having inspired his philosophy, he wouldn’t have invalidated Nietzsche’s philosophy because he hadn’t said a word about it, having limited his remarks to unverifiable and irrelevant conjectures regarding Nietzsche’s psychology.

Such statements amount to an ad hominem attack, although they are often presented as an attempt to help the person whose actions or beliefs are being dismissed. I sometimes run into them due to my atheism, a common argument being: “You only call yourself an atheist because you grew up in a fundamentalist household in which God was portrayed in such a cruel way that you came to hate him. Once you see that God isn’t like that, you will no longer call yourself an atheist.” Such statements ignore the fact that my two best fundamentalist friends from those years are still fundamentalists, but, more to the point, they imply that my atheism isn’t worth examining on its own merits but is entirely the result of a trauma that the speaker presumes the insight to diagnose if not to treat. Because such remarks are irrelevant to the validity of my non-belief, and because I regard psychological analysis as pseudoscientific drivel, I respond by losing a measure of respect for the rationality of the people who make them. If I answer at all, it is only to ask, “What is your evidence?” although I know very well that there is none, and that the speaker will most likely answer my request with more unsubstantiable psychodrivel, i.e. “You’re in denial.

I would say the following to anyone who is so hurt by condescending nonsense—whether it’s meant to be insulting or not—that it makes them afraid to be open: “It’s their problem not yours, and why should you take on their problem?” My willingness to let people keep their problem is why I insist that my openness has nothing to do with courage, but is the result of being experienced enough to see people as they are, which is often irrational. If someone says something about you (or about anything), but has no evidence to support it, why should you believe it? Rising above their insults and condescension is as simple as that, and the more you do it, the better you get.

I could end this here, but I want to say a little more about the kind of criticism I receive regarding atheism because some of you receive it too. The world contains many people who not only regard reason and evidence as unnecessary but go so far as to claim that they are positive hindrances to the discovery of truth, because, as they imagine, “truth lies deeper.” This is not an assumption that they apply to the material world of plugged toilets, blown light bulbs, and dead car batteries, but only to the world of what they call “faith and spirituality.” Unfortunately for them, the only way that I know to establish objective truth is through reason and evidence, and since they have none, communication becomes a problem. I can enjoy talking to believers about belief, and I even love and respect some of them, but it would be absurd for either of us to think that we were going to change the other's mind, because we lack a shared standard for determining truth. I think their standard is ridiculous, and they think my standard is the result of what they call spiritual blindness, i.e. the devil has me by the nuts.

*Marcus Aurelius. The photo is of a fragment of a bronze portrait of him. I think he's extremely handsome, and I wish I could have known him.