Saturday, June 13, 2015

Should We Mock Religion?

Religion: To mock, or not to mock? That is the question.

There is wide disagreement over whether religion should be mocked and ridiculed among atheists. On the one hand, it's argued that mocking religion demystifies it. This takes away its allure and prestige and removes it from the pedestal, which makes it easier to see religion for what it really is. And that all too often is not really all that pleasant. On the other hand, it's argued that mocking religion can make atheists seem insensitive, angry, and hostile, appear unwilling or unable to engage with religion intellectually, and it can have the unintended consequence of the backfire effect.

These are all possible outcomes of religious ridicule. That's why my view on it is that we should do both. Atheists should ridicule religion, and we should engage with it intellectually. Now, here's the thing. Some of us can do both quite well, and some of us are better at one a lot more than the other. I can generally do both fairly well. But not everyone can engage in the highly complex and esoteric subject matter that is required to have the god debate. And not everyone has the sense of humor required to satire and make fun of religion.

This week's Jesus and Mo

Humor can be used to mock religion into extinction, so I think there's value in mockery. It can make the intellectual price of religious belief so costly, and give it such a bad taste that it can discourage belief. This I think has a measurable effect. For example, today in most social circles if you come out as a creationist you'll be laughed right out of the room. I know, because I pretend to be a creationist all the time with people who don't know me just to see how they react, and often they immediately laugh at me. Then of course I tell them that I was just fucking with them.

But the best mockery of religion is mockery that has an intellectual basis. It can't be based on a fallacy. Bill Maher for example, who I'm a huge fan of, mocks religion all the time. He usually does a stellar job doing it. But not all his jokes about religion are accurate. He fell pray to the discredited argument that the ancient Persian deity Mithra has parallels to Jesus as a dying and rising god. But no evidence exists that Mithra was a dying and rising god. Bottom line, you got to be accurate or at least strive to be accurate in your mockery. Otherwise, the joke's on you.

Richard Dawkins famously encouraged atheists to ridicule religion at the Reason Rally back in 2012. He also many times noted that we should ridicule the belief and not the believer. I can see this as a general guideline, but there are definitely times when the believer should be ridiculed as well. And I definitely think exceptions can be made for public figures like Ken Ham, Ray Comfort, William Lane Craig, Edward Feser, and others, who continue to ridicule themselves through their horrendous arguments and beliefs. But our mockery should be intellectual. It should force the theist to think about their beliefs and should hopefully be a conversation starter. Sometimes a well written meme can pack as much punch as a complicated deductive argument.

But we must also recognize that there is a time and a place for mockery, as there is in any basic social interaction. There's this guy at my job, for example, who I recently learned is a deeply religious Christian. He's also super nice. I don't make fun of his religion out of respect, and because he doesn't push his religion on me. First, it's work, and work is a bit more professional than regular interaction (even though I do mock religion with some of my other coworkers.) Second, religion should be made fun of only in certain contexts. I've tried to outline a set of basic rules of etiquette on that here.

What's the goal here? For me it's to decrease religiosity. I find religion and religious belief annoying, sometimes harmful, and always false. I want society to become more socially secular and I want every government to be politically secular. I want the world to be more like my secular life here in New York, where religion and religious belief is almost invisible and rarely taken seriously, save for a minority. That's the kind of world I want to live in, and that's why I think mocking religion has its place and purpose. Finally, according to Phil Zuckerman's analysis of the decline in religion, mockery of religion may be one vital component to the decline in religious belief and identity.

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