Big Question 2: Do Ridicule and Mockery Have a Place?

Ray Comfort
Ray Comfort (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Having addressed the first question (anti-theism vs. secularism) on the list of six big questions that divide atheists, it is time to move on to the second. Of the six questions, this is probably the one I find easiest to answer. This does not mean that it is an easy question to answer; it is not. I think I find it a bit easier than the others because it is the first of the six questions with which I struggled. I encountered it as soon as I started Atheist Revolution. I had to answer it for myself early in the life of the blog, and I have had to revisit it several times since.

Of the six questions, this is also undoubtedly the one I have had directed at me the most by visitors to this blog. I expect this is because so many atheists have pondered it themselves when considering how best to interact with religious believers and how best to respond to religious claims. It seems to be the sort of question almost every atheist will need to answer at some point in time. And I imagine this is also because we will adopt opinions of other atheists based on how we answer this question and on what their behavior tells us about how they have answered it.
Do ridicule and mockery have any place in how atheists respond to religious belief? Some atheists say we should avoid such tactics (e.g., "don't be a dick") because they are counterproductive or make us look bad; others say they have their place in our repertoire.
I wrote about this question as recently as last month, so it is no surprise that my views have not changed since then. I believe that ridicule and mockery do indeed have a place in the repertoire of atheists. At the same time, I acknowledge that they can be used excessively or inappropriately. Moreover, while I think they can play a role, I would hate to think that they are all an atheist can muster in his or her interactions with religious believers.

There are at least two distinct claims made by those who oppose the use of ridicule and mockery of religious beliefs and believers. The first is that atheists should strive to be nice (or at least civil) in their interactions with religious believers (i.e., "don't be a dick"). The second is that the use of ridicule and mockery may be counterproductive in that they may undermine the goals of the person using them (e.g., ridiculing a believer may lead the believer to become even more adamant in his or her views). I think that both of these are valid points that deserve consideration, and while neither leads me to abandon ridicule and mockery altogether, I do find that they help temper my responses.

Don't Be a Dick!

The suggestion that atheists be civil in our interactions with religious believers (and each other) is not a bad one, assuming that we mean the same thing by "civil" as the person calling for us to be civil. The notion that we have reason on our side, so we should be reasonable is appealing to me. And I think there are some distinct advantages to being both reasonable and civil in our interactions with others.

The main problem I have with the "don't be a dick" line of argument is that I often see it being used to stifle criticism that falls far short of ridicule and mockery. For some, "don't be a dick" is a form of political correctness in which individuals are scolded for expressing unpopular opinions or for not conforming with absurd social norms. For others, "don't be a dick" means that we should refrain from criticizing religious belief because it is near and dear to the believer. These are positions with which I strongly disagree. I value the free expression of unpopular ideas, and I think that some ideas demand criticism (and perhaps even ridicule and mockery).

But even when "don't be a dick" only means that we should refrain from ridicule and mockery, I'll have to disagree. I think that these things can be a part of what we do and that there are situations in which they may be beneficial. They can lead to learning and to changed minds on the part of the target, and they can also have an impact on the audience. They are not effective at all times and in all situations, but they can be effective. I see ridicule and mockery as something in the toolbox that should not be overused but brought out when the circumstances call for it.

Some religious beliefs are clearly detrimental to society. Take the example of the bigotry and hate some Christian extremists in the U.S. direct at gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons. These beliefs drive behavior that has negative consequences. They are clearly harmful. Consider the Christian extremist presence in Africa and how it has fueled modern-day witch hunts. These beliefs are also clearly harmful. The Islamic extremists who become violent when a cartoonist depicts someone they don't want to be depicted are yet another example. I could go on and on, but the point is simple: some religious beliefs are harmful. If there is any chance that the influence of such beliefs or those who hold them could be reduced through ridicule and mockery, aren't we obligated to try?

"Don't be a dick" is not necessarily bad advice; however, there are times when being a dick may be warranted and when ridicule and mockery can be useful.

Ridicule and Mockery Can Sometimes Be Effective

This seems to be the most controversial part of this question, but as stated above, I do believe that ridicule and mockery can sometimes be effective. Are they always effective? Of course not! Does anybody enjoy having their beliefs ridiculed or mocked? Probably not. Is there reason to believe that ridicule and mockery will lead some people to become even more entrenched in their beliefs? Absolutely. And yet, none of this means that there can be no circumstances in which ridicule and mockery have a positive impact.

Again and again, I have been asked whether I have ever changed my beliefs or behavior because I have been subjected to ridicule or mockery. And again and again, I answer affirmatively. I have repeatedly learned and changed my opinions, beliefs, and behavior because someone else has ridiculed or mocked them. Have there also been times where ridicule and mockery led me to dig in and become even more resistant to changing my mind. Yes, there have certainly been such times.

My claim has never been that ridicule and mockery are always effective, only that they can sometimes be effective.

But What About Atheist PR?

I am willing to accept the possibility that atheists, even though we are already a hated minority in some countries, could do further harm to our image by being overly "dickish." I see this as unlikely, but I will acknowledge that it is at least possible. What I disagree with is the assertion that atheists have a public relations (PR) problem and that we should attempt to be "nicer" to avoid it. Hated minority groups are nearly always told to tone it down, go along to get along, play nice, and "don't be a dick" when dealing with a bigoted majority. As far as I'm concerned, this has often been poor advice designed to slow progress.

I am not suggesting we ignore PR completely, but I am suggesting that we do not accept too much responsibility for the bigotry and discrimination atheists face in some countries.

How Far Does It Go?

I think it is safe to assume that every one of you will have seen at least one Internet meme mocking religion by now. They are all over social media, and they would be almost impossible to miss. Contrast spreading such a meme via social media with showing up on a religious believer's doorstep, ringing the bell, and then mocking his or her religious beliefs. Is there a meaningful difference between the two? Would anybody equate sharing a meme on one's own Facebook page with knocking on a believer's door and then mocking them?

I mention this because I think it is important to distinguish between using ridicule and mockery in response to one's public expression of religious belief and invading one's private space to do so. I am not going to condone the behavior of the atheist who decides to go on a door-to-door mocking spree through his or her neighborhood; I am going to condone the sharing of a meme that mocks religious belief.

When I suggest that ridicule and mockery can sometimes be effective and that they belong in the atheist's toolbox, I am referring to their use in response to public expressions of religious belief.

For some additional thoughts on this question, see Mojoey's post at Deep Thoughts.