Is It Okay to Mock Religion?

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 16, 2009 in General Atheism

I use many tactics to spread my ideas (and to invite the ideas of others, which influence me greatly).

Some have objected to this last tactic, the aggressive atheism. They are disappointed by it.

I can understand that. Nobody likes to be ridiculed. (Well, almost nobody. In certain cases, I like to be ridiculed. So do people who get “roasted.”)

So, what is my defense?

My defense is this: ridicule is a tool that works on certain people at certain times. Socrates (and his modern counterpart, Nassim Taleb) made it his hobby to tease “people who take themselves & the quality of their knowledge too seriously & those who don’t have the courage to sometimes say: I don’t know.” This was an important factor in changing how people think about knowledge, and is still needed.

See, people respond to different stimuli. Some people are reached by personal testimony – Christian evangelists know this better than anyone! Others are reached by rational argument – as Christian apologists know. For some others, you cannot break through their delusion with anything less than a full frontal attack.

In fact, my own Christian delusion was once so deep, mockery is what got through to me.

In my deconversion story, I mention that I’d been listening to an atheist radio show for a few months before my deconversion. Actually, it was that show that is responsible for my conversion from Christianity to freethought, which is the greatest thing that ever happened to me. And it got through to me because it mocked me.

I had heard what friendly atheists had to say. I had read some books about history and logic and comparative religion. And I had been able to shrug it all off. It hadn’t affected my faith too much.

Then, about the same time I started studying the Historical Jesus, I came across that radio show, The Atheist Experience. The host, Matt Dillahunty, takes calls from Christians, and rationally responds to their arguments.

But sometimes, he mocks the absurdity of their beliefs.

And that was what really got through to me. He hit me with a load of bricks, and finally made me realize:

“Holy shit. I actually have an invisible friend who grants me wishes. I actually believe in magic and the power of magical incantations and magical substances. Maybe those things are real but WOAH I’d better look into this.”

Of course, the church had taught me different names for these things, so they didn’t sound so ridiculous. Jesus was my “spiritual companion” who “answers prayers.” I believed in “supernatural power,” and that phrases like “in the name of Jesus” and “Amen” had real power, and that a substance like “anointing oil” was used by God to bring healing. But there it was. I finally admitted that I really had an invisible, wish-granting magical friend.

That didn’t destroy my faith, not by a long shot. But it changed the way I studied things. When I read about the Historical Jesus or the philosophy of religion, I read with the perspective that it was possible I was wrong. And in my case, it took mockery to get me there.

Being mocked changed my life forever, and for the better. Sometimes, ridicule is the only thing that will get through to certain people at certain times. I know, because I was one of those people.

I learned many things from that experience. One was that ridicule can be valuable, though it’s probably not the best tool to use all the time. Another was that it’s not useful to take offense at anything. These days, I openly invite ridicule because I’ve decided the emotional content cannot harm me – either the statements against me contain a grain of useful truth, or do they not.

So that is why I sometimes ridicule believers. But realize, it is only one of many tactics I use, and it’s not my most common tactic, either.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin February 17, 2009 at 8:45 am

I’ve been seeing stories very similar to yours for some time now. I call it the Ex-Christian Syndrome.

I attribute it to one basic thing: in church-on-every-corner America, there are those who buy into the noise and fury of religion and miss Christ.

That, my friend, is you! Sorry to make you defensive right off the bat, but I’ve seen it time and again and it is symptomatic of the anti-intellectual wave which has rocked the American church since just after WWII. (Thankfully, that is turning around!).

Theology on Eternal Security aside, had you encountered the solid grounds upon which Christianity is based, you would not have fallen prey to Dillahunty and his band of Austin atheists.

Yet, I don’t blame you. I’m sure their at least sounding reasonable made more sense than the shallow stuff you’d been hearing and the Postmodern nonsense you’d encountered.

How tragic.

I’d like to offer this: Do you realize that the same “buzz” – the same psychological rush and components -that result from religious commitment takes place upon atheist commitment? Any radical sea-change, when embraced, produces a sense of release and sometimes even euphoria.

You have traded one liver-quiver for another. You have traded one cause for another. And emotional confessions have nothing to do with truth.

Follow the evidence. 1) Naturalism hits the wall at the Big Bang. 2). Christ is who he claimed to be.

Thanks for thinking,

Kevin

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MJ February 19, 2009 at 5:41 am

Ridicule can definitely be a useful and powerful tool, especially when employed against objects or ideas duly meriting it, and provided it’s one tool among many, as you say. A good example of a Christian employing ridicule against an atheist would be David Bentley Hart’s article “Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark,” which I think you’d enjoy, if you’re not already familiar:

http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=5394

I hope you give some blog space to Hart’s new book on atheism when it arrives in April!

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lukeprog February 21, 2009 at 6:24 am

I was not aware of Hart. Thank you.

I would not be so harsh of Dennet. Many of Hart’s criticisms – for example that Dennett did not deal with every possible counter-argument on every issue – could be leveled at almost anything ever written. Also, Hart – as many theologians and Christian philosophers do – defends a rare kind of intellectual and less-harmful-than-usual kind of religion, whereas Dennett is attacking religion as actually practiced by billions of people. In this way, the recent atheist books are more relevant than their critiques, even if something like The God Delusion is poorly argued on the finer points of the logical possibility of religious claims.

I agree with Hart’s greater point, though, that Dennett’s book is unimportant.

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Supernova November 30, 2009 at 12:05 am

Hello all. This post is regarding lukeprog’s post above and his article.

I do believe strong intellectual debate is important on both sides: atheism and theism. However, mocking and ridicule doesn’t get us too far, though at times it can help drive a point home.

Back to lukeprog’s above post.

Basically, I’m just nitpicking and am not looking for a debate. One of Hart’s criticisms is not the fact that Dennett doesn’t address every possible counter-argument, rather Dennett doesn’t even give good arguments, nonetheless account for at least some of the main counter-arguments that are out there. I don’t think Hart’s criticisms of Dennett’s book was he (Dennett) neglected to deal with every possible counter-argument, but more with the fact that his methodology, evidence, logic, and reasoning are… well, simply put, done so on err.

As Hart put it, “The idea of memes might provide Dennett a convenient excuse for not addressing the actual content of religious beliefs and for concentrating his attention instead on the phenomenon of religion as a cultural and linguistic type, but any ostensible science basing itself on memetic theory is a science based on a metaphor—or, really, on an assonance… His story is a matter not of facts but of conjectures and intuitions, strung together on tenuous strands of memetic theory… To put the matter bluntly, no one could mistake it for a genuinely substantial argument who was not firmly intent on doing so before ever reading the book. Viewed impartially, Dennett’s project leads nowhere, and its diffuse and flimsy methods are altogether unequal to the task of capturing the complex, bewildering, endlessly diverse thing they are designed to subdue.”

Hart provides valid arguments and points to back up his reasoning. For those interested in reading it the link is above in MJ’s post.

Since we are talking about reviews, some others are:

Alvin Plantinga’s review of The God Delusion
http://www.christianitytoday.com/bc/2007/marapr/1.21.html

Anthony Kenny’s review of The God Delusion
http://journals.cambridge.org/download.php?file=%2FPHI%2FPHI82_03%2FS0031819107000010a.pdf&code=207d55dd9bea142691802b67ab63f032

You can find many other reviews for The God Delusion by Richard Swinburne (a philosopher of science & religion and theologian) Thomas Nagel (a secular analytic philosopher), Allen Orr (an evolutionary biologist), Terry Eagleton (a popular British literary critic), and others.

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hawke123 December 8, 2009 at 2:07 pm

“These days, I openly invite ridicule because I’ve decided the emotional content cannot harm me – either the statements against me contain a grain of useful truth, or do they not.”

So you actually believe that the universe popped into being from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing? Yet, you have the audacity to claim theists believe in magic and myth?

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hawke123 December 8, 2009 at 2:08 pm

hawke123: “These days, I openly invite ridicule because I’ve decided the emotional content cannot harm me – either the statements against me contain a grain of useful truth, or do they not.”

So you actually believe that the universe popped into being from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing?Yet, you have the audacity to mock theists for believing in magic and myth?  

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Thomas Lantern September 9, 2010 at 9:57 am

“Holy shit. I actually have an invisible friend who grants me wishes. I actually believe in magic and the power of magical incantations and magical substances. Maybe those things are real but WOAH I’d better look into this.”

I’m not arguing as to whether or not it is okay to mock religion, but rather my criticism is that agreeing with the paragraph above carries with it a presupposition that God isn’t something anyone reasonable should believe in. As an atheist that would seem like a reasonable position to take, but since you claimed to be a strong believer at the time you made that statement, it would seem your belief wasn’t really all that strong to begin with.

In Western society, “God, Creator of the universe” does not really equal “Invisible friend”. “Invisible friend” in Western society has a connotation that implies something stupid you make up as a kid. I.e. By agreeing that the concept “God” = the concept of “Invisible friend”, you’re more than likely presupposing that God is something stupid that only a kid would believe (although, ironically, in a sense that isn’t far off from what the Bible actually teaches… but I guess most people are too smart for that stuff).

Just the same, “Magic, Magic incantations, Magic substances” does not really equal “beyond natural existence”. Again we tend to associate “Magic” with “Magicians, Magic Tricks”, etc… I.e. presupposing that anything beyond nature is a completely stupid concept.

1. I believe in God.
2. I believe God is my friend and that God is invisible.
3. I believe I have an invisible friend.

I would think many Christians, for example, would believe in 1 and 2, and I would agree that 3 does follow from 1 and 2, but it only sounds stupid or silly because you probably also think something like this:

An invisible friend is something that kids tend to make up when they’re too young, bored, and too stupid to know any better.

If you loved a woman who was overweight, would you tell her that her weight troubles have you concerned about her health, or would you call her a fat ass? You can certainly argue that both carry the same general observation about her weight, but I imagine the response one would get from one versus the other would be very different with most women.

By the same reasoning:

1. Anything supernatural is magic.
2. I believe in some things that are supernatural.
3. I believe in magic.

3 follows from 1, but only sounds stupid with the cultural context that suggests that “magic is something only naive little children believe is real”.

Forgive the length of my post, have a great day Luke.

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cl September 12, 2010 at 12:18 pm

You know, this got me to thinking: is it rational to be persuaded by mockery? I’d say it’s not. You could certainly argue that you developed a penchant for rationalism after mockery opened the door, but still, at the end of the day, it seems to me that opinions changed via mockery are changed for emotional reasons. This is why I tend to frown on those who espouse mockery as a valid tactic: it prompts emotional, not rational, behavior.

At the same time, I’m sympathetic to the argument that reason often fails to persuade.

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Andre December 17, 2010 at 6:18 am

Follow the evidence. (..) 2). Christ is who he claimed to be.

And, pray tell, what evidence would that be?

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