September 3, 2015

The Ridicule and Mockery of Religious Belief

dinosaur w/saddle

One of the longest running controversies among atheists concerns the use of ridicule and mockery as a way of responding to public expressions of religious belief. Some argue that mockery and ridicule should have no place because they elicit resistance and strengthen belief, because they are immature or mean, or because we atheists should respect religious believers too much to mock their beliefs. Others, and I count myself among them, insist that ridicule and mockery of beliefs (though not necessarily of individuals) have an important place and should not be abandoned.

We might perceive ridicule and mockery as being somewhat childish. We might consider them an inferior form of communication as compared with reasoned discourse. We might have a point here. The thing is, none of this stops ridicule and mockery from being effective in some situations. The goal of ridicule and mockery is to provoke thought among all who encounter it. Nobody pretends that it will lead to instantaneous de-conversion 100% of the time; that is rarely the point or the goal.

Again and again, I encounter atheists insisting that ridicule and mockery do not work - I've recently encountered some atheists claiming that they never produce any change in anyone's beliefs. I cannot resist trying to do a bit of debunking here.

Remember Santa?

Thinking back to elementary school, I remember a point in time when almost all of my classmates and I blindly accepted the reality of Santa Claus. Our families and the culture in which we were raised told us he was real, and we had no reason to suspect otherwise. And then everything changed rather suddenly. Some kids caught their parents in the act, found the presents or at least the wrapping paper that would soon be passed off as having came from Santa, or were taken aside and told the truth by an older sibling. Their belief in Santa burst like a bubble from experiences like this. Other kids learned about Santa from such peers at school. Upon hearing about the experiences of other children, they began to ask questions they had never asked before. They began to view Santa with skepticism for the first time.

Do you remember how powerful ridicule and mockery were during this brief period of time, the time when some kids knew the truth and others did not? The kids who still believed in Santa were ridiculed. "You still believe in Santa?" And what sort of effect did this ridicule and mockery have? It prompted these kids to investigate for themselves, to ask hard questions, to think critically. And all of this quickly lead them to change their beliefs. Ridicule and mockery were by no means the only way kids came to realize the truth about Santa, but they were one undeniably effective way.

Oh, come on! These are children, and Santa is a trivial belief in comparison to most adult beliefs. Even if ridicule and mockery could be effective here, they'd never work with adults. Don't be so sure.

Mispronunciation

Have you ever thought you were pronouncing a word correctly and discovered later that you've been mispronouncing it for years because nobody ever corrected you? And more to the point, have you ever had someone mock the way you were mispronouncing the word? If so, did you angrily insist they were wrong and keep pronouncing the word incorrectly even though you knew it was incorrect? No, of course not. You began to pronounce the word correctly.

Suppose that you somehow managed to grow up pronouncing the word "tortilla" as if the letter "l" was not silent. One day, someone laughs in your face (instead of behind your back like everyone else has been doing) and gives you a thorough mocking. Is this really going to make you cling to your mispronunciation even more? Are you going to go around pronouncing your ls even louder now? No, you are going to change your belief about the proper pronunciation and your pronunciation itself. In fact, I imagine you'd do so rather quickly.

Okay, so we're talking about adults now, but that is still too trivial an example. No adult would change his or her cherished religious beliefs in response to ridicule and mockery. Again, this claim comes up repeatedly in spite of the fact that many of us have had many experiences of doing just that.

The Comedian

Many talented stand-up comedians mock particular religious beliefs and sometimes religious belief itself in their acts. You have all witnessed many examples of this. The really good ones often start by mocking some of the more absurd examples (e.g., Scientology, Mormonism) and then transition to those members of their audience are more likely to hold. The audience started by laughing at "those ignorant people" and gradually transitioned to laughing at people who believe what they do.

I don't think anybody would claim that there are widespread de-conversions on the way home from the comedy clubs. But I suspect that some of those in the audience will find themselves asking more questions, thinking a bit differently about their religious beliefs, and possibly even recognizing how silly some of their cherished notions sound to others who were not indoctrinated. Through their laughter, they have been helped to see a bit more of the truth. That is, seeds may have been planted that will begin to cause a shift in the thinking of some audience members.

Haven't you ever had the experience of walking away from a really good comedian and realizing that you will likely never think the same way about a particular subject as you did before? Ridicule and mockery can help us to adjust our perspective on all manner of subjects, including religious ones.

Ridicule and Mockery Often Lead Us To Modify Beliefs

I am puzzled by those who claim that the experience of having their beliefs mocked or ridiculed has never resulted in their modifying their beliefs. This has happened to me more times than I can count and has included a range of topics from trivial to extremely important. And yes, ridicule and mockery have led me to think differently about religion at many points in my life. The impact is rarely sudden, but I cannot deny its power. Hearing someone else say, "You can't be serious! You really believe that?" has led me to ask questions of myself I might not have asked otherwise. Having someone point and laugh in my face has made me pause and consider the merits of what I was saying more deeply than I probably would have otherwise and has certainly taught me the value of thinking before speaking.

The experience of being ridiculed or mocked is rarely pleasant. Nobody would pretend otherwise. But thinking more clearly and being in a better position to distinguish truth from falsehood is worth any transient sting to one's ego. I'm glad that those who have ridiculed and mocked my beliefs did not opt instead to deprive me of a valuable opportunity to learn and grow. Because I do respect religious believers, I'm not about to deprive them of such an opportunity.

For those of us who are freethinkers and who are seeking to be more rational, ridicule and mockery cannot be the only things we have to offer. We do not want to rely too much on them to the expense of other approaches, but they do belong in our toolbox because they are often effective.
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