A Virtue of Caricature

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 28, 2009 in Christian Theology

jesus dinosaur

Christian children's books caricature Christianity better than I do.

In my review of The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, I wrote that:

I give this book 5 stars not because it convinced me that a magical super-being spoke the universe into existence and revealed himself to ancient, ignorant people through the virgin birth of a man-god who… got killed, then rose from the dead and flew off into the sky. No, I give this book 5 stars because it’s the best defense of such a myth that can possibly be mustered.1

Some complained that I was attacking a straw man. So I asked them to explain which part of my description was a “straw man”:

…which part of my statement does the average Christian deny?

Does the average Christian deny that God has magical powers? No. God supposedly controls things through non-natural means. That’s the very definition of magic.

Does the average Christian deny that God is a super-being? Certainly not. There is no being more “super” than God.

Does he deny that God spoke the universe into existence? No. That’s the standard account of creation, found in Genesis.

Does he deny that God revealed himself in the person of Jesus to ignorant, superstitious people of the ancient Middle East? No.

Does he deny that Jesus was born of a virgin? No.

Does he deny that Jesus was both a man and a god? No.

Does he deny that Jesus got killed? No.

Does he deny that Jesus rose from the dead? No.

Does he deny that the resurrected Jesus ascended into the sky? No.

You may deny some of these things, but most Christians do not… This is really what more than a billion Christian believe…

Next, Christians said my description of Christian doctrine was a caricature. A caricature is:

a picture, description, etc., ludicrously exaggerating the peculiarities or defects of persons or things.

In response to this critique, I asked: “What one-sentence summary would not count as a caricature of Christianity?” For example, let’s try this:

Humans are condemned to hell by their own sin, but God loved humans so much that he sent his son Jesus to be killed in our place, after which he rose in power and offers eternal salvation to those who follow him.2

But this ludicrously exaggerates certain peculiarities of Christian doctrine, while leaving out other hugely important doctrines, for example:

  1. God is the one who created the universe.
  2. God is a supernatural being.
  3. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good.
  4. God created humans in his image.
  5. Sin is disobedience to God’s commands, which he gave us in Scripture and wrote on our “hearts.”
  6. God endowed us with invisible, eternal souls.
  7. God’s “son” is actually just God, the same person, but also kinda not.
  8. Jesus is no longer on earth, but in heaven – the supernatural kingdom of God where there is no pain.
  9. Jesus was born of a virgin and gave healing, exorcism, and moral teaching while on earth.
  10. God’s will can be found in the canonical Jewish Bible, but that has been superseded by his will expressed in the canonical New Testament.

It seems to me that any summary of something so vast and complex as the Christian worldview is going to be a “caricature.”

A virtue of caricature

Also, I would like to argue that sometimes it is okay to mock people’s beliefs.

I don’t always mock religious beliefs. Not even close. But sometimes I do. Why?

Because different people respond to different stimuli. For some people, mocking is the only thing that gets through to them.

How do I know? Because I was one of those people.

When I was a Christian, I got jolted by an atheist who said I literally had an “invisible, magical, wish-granting friend.” I complained that this wasn’t a balanced picture of Christian theology. I ranted that the atheist was disrespectful and disingenuous.

But later, I thought about what he had said. And I realized it was literally true of what I believed. Yes, I thought Jesus was unseen. Yes, I thought Jesus used the supernatural to control natural events. Yes, I though he responded to people’s requests. Yes, I thought of him as my friend, among other things.

knew Jesus was a whole lot more than an invisible, magical, and wish-granting friend. I knew that wasn’t a very complete or helpful description of Jesus in the Christian tradition. But the atheist’s statement was literally true of what I believed. And that disturbed me enough to try to take the faith-colored glasses off so I could look at Christianity with the same eyes as I looked at every other religion – so I could drop the dishonest double standard. I thought to myself, “Woah, there. Now, all that might happen to be true about the universe, but I’d better at least look into that.”

See, in my case, calm and rational argument had been unable to penetrate my “armor of faith.” The quiet charity of moral atheists had not helped me to reconsider my biases one bit, either. But a caricature of my faith – an imbalanced but strictly true picture of my worldview – did break through to me, so I was able to look at it more objectively.

Here, then, is the whole point of this post in one paragraph:

To say that the Grand Canyon is “a big hole in the ground” is an absurd caricature. But if I was a dogmatic worshiper of the Grand Canyon, I hope someone would have the courage to ask “Why are you worshiping a big hole in the ground?” That would a huge distortion of the majesty of the Grand Canyon. But it might help me to examine my beliefs more objectively, since it would be literally true of what I believe.

A virtue of caricature is that it can be a bias-piercing weapon for truth. It helps us to laugh at ourselves. It helps us not take ourselves too seriously. Caricature reminds us that our own beliefs can seem pretty absurd to people who don’t share them.

And that is why I use caricature “against” my own beliefs, regularly. I often remind myself that I literally believe that “consciousness and morality evolved from the random bouncing around of invisible particles.” That is an absurd caricature of what I believe. It is imbalanced. It is distorted. Some naturalists might even consider such a depiction of their beliefs offensive.

But it is literally true of what I believe. And realizing it is literally true helps me to take a step back, perhaps with a chuckle, and say to myself: ”Woah, there. Now, all that might happen to be true about the universe, but I’d better at least look into that.” The caricature can help pierce my biases and keep me open to what should be a more obvious fact to us humans than it usually is: I might be wrong.

So that’s a virtue of caricature.

But that doesn’t mean it’s good or useful to employ caricature all the time. Sometimes, caricature just makes people feel disrespected, and then communication shuts down pretty quickly.

That’s what happened in my debate with Tom Gilson. I used a caricature of Christian doctrine about Jesus and Tom ended our otherwise productive debate.

Steven D. offered me some advice:

1) Know your audience. The rhetorical tactic you employed with Tom is largely ineffective at achieving the desired result. It sidetracks the discussion and gets everyone in a big tizzy.

2) Tone. I understand it is difficult to discern tone from words on a screen, but you could try a little bit harder to couch your language in a way that allows for more fruitful discussion. Most of the time you are excellent with this, but as an impartial observer I note that sometimes you can be abrasive. Ease up on those italics.

I happen to think literally, according to the definitions you and Tom agreed to use, your caricature is correct. But just because you can draw a picture of Mohammad humping Bugs Bunny doesn’t mean you should, especially if you are trying to deconvert them!

And I think Steven D. is right. I think it was a poor choice of mine to use caricature in a written debate with a humble and respectful interlocutor on a website devoted to friendly, disciplined debate. I also think I need to be more careful in the tone I communicate, especially online when people can only see my words and not hear my voice tone.

So I’ve apologized to Tom.

But I’m still trying to figure this out. First: Is Jesus an “Invisible, Magical, Wish-Granting Friend” to Christians?

Second: Is it sometimes a good idea to caricature someone’s beliefs?

Let me know what you think.

  1. This time, I’ve left out a part about Jesus performing “party tricks” because it’s the most questionable part of the description. []
  2. We could also try the summary given by theologian Karl Barth: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” But that is an even greater caricature. []

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Steven D. November 28, 2009 at 8:12 pm

That brontosaurus is not to scale!

Caricature is a subset of satire.

Bad satire makes the “choir” laugh and the “enemy” pissed off, it does not make anyone think deeply. More often than not, it deepens the choir’s facile understanding of a subject, confirms biases, and allows a cheap “gotchya” thrill. The other side feels misunderstood and attacked. It’s strictly for the sheep.

Good satire, on the other hand, is a much more useful tool, and can often illustrate complex ideas into a single image or line that makes everyone simultaneously 1) pee their pants from laughter and 2) blow their minds from sudden insight. Good satire can enrage, but only from the sting of truth.

Whether something is good satire or bad satire depends entirely on its effect.

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Bradm November 28, 2009 at 8:56 pm

Luke,

Where did you apologize to him? The last comment you made on the discussion grounds website is you accusing Tom of lack of clarity and avoiding straight answers.

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lukeprog November 28, 2009 at 9:17 pm

I apologized via personal email.

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David November 29, 2009 at 11:57 am

Glad that you’ve apologized. I watched wincingly as that debate got sidetracked by this and disintegrated, especially given that it started off so well. Caricature is not always useful, and I think you were in this case insensitive. Lesson learned, hopefully, and next time can be more productive.

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Mark November 29, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Does the average Christian deny that God has magical powers?

Yes, and so does the average atheist–err the one who just issued a proclamation stating Jesus is NOT magic, that is.

Does he deny that God spoke the universe into existence? No. That’s the standard account of creation, found in Genesis.

No, that’s the standard LITERAL inference made by those (such as yourself) who need straw man arguments to give their arguments an air [or is that error?] of intellectual superiority.

Does he deny that God revealed himself in the person of Jesus to ignorant, superstitious people of the ancient Middle East? No.

“Ignorant and superstitious”? Like the rest of the human population in its entirety from time memorial to present day? Where might I find this colony of perfected beings your provocative implications tease of?

Does he deny that the resurrected Jesus ascended into the sky? No.

“Ascended into the sky.” Lukeprog you don’t see the straw man in that? You would have us envision Jesus as a mylar figure full of helium if it suited your argument.

You may deny some of these things, but most Christians do not… This is really what more than a billion Christian believe…

Oh? Have you interviewed all of them, Luke? Oh, wait, of course you have; you are omnipotent. How could you NOT be with a statement like that? Then again, it would be IMPOSSIBLE to maintain an anti Christian blog if you were forced to address each Christian’s ignorant and superstitious beliefs. It’s much easier to presuppose every Christian has an 18 year old simpleton view of the faith as you once had, then systematically disassemble it as though you were some celebrated intellectual. Geez dude. Really.

When I was a Christian, I got **jolted** by an atheist who said I literally had an “invisible, magical, wish-granting friend.” I complained that this wasn’t a balanced picture of Christian theology. I ranted that the atheist was disrespectful and disingenuous.

JOLTED. Hmmm. Once again this makes me think your faith was very weak to begin with. Why? Because a bombastic little quip like the one you quoted could not “jolt” someone deep in the faith. Ask your Dad if he could be jolted by that kind of thing. When he says NO, ask him why. Is it because he’s a brainwashed dolt who is void the ability to reason? Of course not. It’s because he is one with his faith and it is now unbreakable. He has become “Real.” You, not so much, because you unplugged the iron before it got hot enough to iron out the wrinkles.

And that is why I use caricature “against” my own beliefs, regularly.

You do? I haven’t seen a single caricature of your beliefs yet. All I see is caricatures of Christianity, Jesus in particular. [You seem to have a strange obsession with Jesus.. what about figures of other faiths? How about some offensive caricatures of Allah and Muhammad? Or have they not earned the Lukeprog retaliation treatment yet?]

I knew Jesus was a whole lot more than an invisible, magical, and wish-granting friend. I knew that wasn’t a very complete or helpful description of Jesus in the Christian tradition. But the atheist’s statement was literally true of what I believed

This makes no sense whatsoever.

Second: Is it sometimes a good idea to caricature someone’s beliefs?

What is *******GOOD******? Have you a post modern standard you’d like to share?

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Mark November 29, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Luke, it seems to me you should be an agnostic. I don’t think you know WHAT you believe yet, bro.

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Penneyworth November 30, 2009 at 12:06 pm

Nice post. Very insightful ideas about the use of caricature which I’m sure to regurgitate often.

About Tom Gilson: The guy refuses to discuss any further due to your refusal to use his flowery language which he sees as some necessary subservience to the particular version of gawd that exists in his mind. Good riddance. If you were trying to discuss the Iraq invasion with someone, and they stomped off in a tantrum simply because you would not incessantly refer to Iraq as “Part of the AXIS OF EVIL”, would you feel that you were missing out on a useful debate?

Here’s my advice: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wS5xOZ7Rq8

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