In Defense Of Mocking And Embarrassing Religion

Unreasonable Faith just profiled this interesting looking documentary on a tour of debates between Christopher Hitchens and Doug Wilson. In the comments section to that post, Custador wrote the following about Christopher Hitchens:

Generally I find his demeanor to be too confrontational to be productive. It’s like he’s trying to embarasse theists into seeing reason. I much prefer Dawkins, who I think is the more reasoned and balanced of the two.

This is an issue that I find particularly frustrating because I teach philosophy and write philosophy and mockery and attempts to embarrass one’s opponents are usually quite the opposite of what doing philosophy productively entails. That’s not always the case of course—there are characteristically ironic and sarcastic philosophers among the ranks of the greats (Socrates, Kiekegaard, Nietzsche, and the members of the Cynic tradition being chief among them).  But, as a rule, philosophers aspire to find and test the best arguments for a viewpoint rather than the worst and to argue with clear and precise reasons rather than to simply laugh and dismiss opponents or (worse) hold them in contempt or try to embarrass them.

But the problem with the issue of faith is that its proponents are actively attacking reason itself (as Wilson does painfully stupidly in this video) and when someone attacks reason itself and is obtuse to logic and other forms of rational implication, then at a certain point, precisely this dangerous example of flouting the demands of reason needs to be called out precisely as sheer stupidity.  And if mockery and embarrassment are the necessary means for warning onlookers that trying to undermine reason itself leads to being shamed, then maybe that’s a necessary tactic.

What it boils down to, at least in part, is that we learn to accept moral and intellectual standards in no small part due to praise and shame, honor and blame, and other conditioning of our emotions to associate some habits with social acceptance and others with social rejection.  Faith has such a death grip on so many minds because on a deep level their emotions have been conditioned by the forces of tradition to associate fulfilling their desire to be socially accepted with communal loyalty and they feel the need to acknowledge faith as an indispensable part of proving such loyalty.

What makes Hitchens so invaluable is that he centers his attack on ethics and makes clear that this is a moral conflict and that some of our virtues (those of honesty, intellectual humility, rationalism) are in genuine conflict with faith and loyalty, both of which he takes to be vices. He is trying to shift the public perception of what is shameworthy, what is cause for embarrassment, because the general human mind has it completely backwards.

Hitchens’s mockery is part of this larger project of trying to change our practices of honoring and shaming from religious ones and religiously based ones to rationalistic and rationalistically based ones. The mockery serves the part of conditioning people to think twice before they spout nonsense. They have long been encouraged to parrot empty bullshit for social acceptance (with varying degrees of conviction from person to person). I think the world needs its share of Hitchenses out there giving emotional pushes in the other direction.

I wish it were a situation where the debate was only between competing reasons on two sides with no need for mockery and emotional appeals. But religion binds emotionally and for many of us (including for me when I reflect on my own process of breaking free from it) it takes some emotional appeals to unbind us.  In my case, a healthy dose of moral culpability at dispicable things that loyalty to Christian teachings had led me to do, shame at having allowed myself beliefs that were unjustified and which had harmful social consequences, a moral feeling of obligation to restrict my beliefs more carefully to my evidence, and downright embarrassment from flat out losing a debate to a far less philosophically knowledgable atheist really played major roles in my change of mind.

And even more than these things, Nietzsche’s aggressiveness affected me and forced me to confront where my reason had already been from months of exposure to compelling ideas that I had been trying to hold at arms’ length.  On my first deep immersion in Nietzsche’s writings I barely understood how to fit what he was saying together very exactly.  But the challenge of his forceful, polemical attack on Christianity awoke the very possibility of questioning its ethics in me and reinforced my rationally worked out reasons to doubt the faith and my justifications for believing on faith at all.  If I had let Christian hegemony over my emotions and over my ethical judgments of what was to be shamed and honored to maintain, I may never have been forced to confront what my reason had come to realize about the truth and falsity of things.

Religious people are not inherently stupid.  The norm for humanity is religiosity of some kind.  There are reasons that this makes sense to me based on my grasp of how we form moral communities, how we rely on tradition and authority to learn, what traditions require in order to successfully unite and transmit themselves, and how traditions need to protect themselves against new ideas which look good but are dangerous for yet undetected reasons. And holistic assessments of many religious people’s lives will show particular religious people to be better people on net than other particular irreligious ones.  And therefore, it is blameworthily prejudicial to judge any given religious person badly solely on account of her irrationally holding to a faith.

For all of these reasons, it is inadvisable to be indiscriminately pugnacious and it is both foolish and unethical to treat anyone with less respect than their degree of sincerity and capability merit.  I would not advocate mocking and embarrassing as one’s only tactic, as a first resort, or as appropriate to the extent that one is encountering good faith reasons and misunderstandings.  And I also think it prudent, properly humble, and only humanly decent to acknowledge that a particular person you are confronting has a complicated emotional and intellectual history that leads them to disagree with you and therefore to be patient and respectful with them as much as possible.

But, as much as is consistent with all these concerns for arguing fairly and sympathetically, there are some points on which confrontation needs to be had, in which mockery, irony, and shame are valid moral and intellectual means of persuasion where one’s rational reasons are most effectively conveyed through them—where they provide the necessary emotional pull needed to tear people away from a faith that someone cannot tear himself away from because of emotional conditioning even he does not fully understand.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Tyler Samien

    Excellent post, Dan. Thanks.

  • Dan Fincke

    Thanks for reading and encouraging Tyler!

  • shane

    Hi Dan,

    Here’s my counter-question: Is it fair, reasonable or ethical to mock and embarrass atheists under the same circumstances as it is appropriate to mock the religious?

    Isn’t it the case that lots of people are atheists for stupid reasons and that many of them are far more certain of the cogency of their own position (and their own moral superiority) than is warranted? (“I mean, like, if God is all-powerful, can’t he, like, make a rock so heavy that even he can’t move it?”)

    And there’s a lot that’s mockable among the new high priests of atheism as well: Dawkins’s misunderstandings of the theistic arguments for God’s existence are imminently mockable. (Cf. Terry Eagleton’s piece on “The God Delusion” in the London Review of Books).

    I also think it’s completely mockable that Hitchens is debating with a pastor from the middle of nowhere Idaho. As far as I can tell Hitchens doesn’t do debates with anyone worth debating. If he wants to convince me that atheism is the only seriously intellectually respectable position to hold, he’s going to have to prove his view over against Alvin Plantinga or, perhaps even better, Nicholas Wolterstorff.

  • shane

    Also, for mockery and philosophical debate–and the failure of atheist philosophers to actually engage intellectually with the arguments of religious believers–cf.

  • Chris

    Hope you don’t mind Dan, I shared your post with a group I am involved with on CafeMom called Religious Roundtable.. we talk about stuff like this (excellent post btw) all the time and I think some of them would enjoy your POV.. Chris

    • Daniel Fincke

      Of course I don’t mind! I’m a blogger, I want you to spread my posts all around the internet :)

      Glad you liked it, thanks! Send anyone here who would like to add their thoughts to the discussion in my comments section too.

      thanks again!

    • Daniel Fincke

      one thing though, you did give them the link, right? you didn’t just copy it the whole text I hope.

  • Jonathan Speke Laudl

    I concur with your thought that muslim culture is still mired in religion such that
    one is branded a traitor to the group if apostate. This cultural norm resembles a prevailing norm of Christian medieval Europe (the inquisition being one of its manifestations). Though islamic culture is 1500 years old, it shows no sign of beginning a transformation as Christian Europe did when it was 1500 years old—called the Renaissance—-leading to a generally secularized, democratic, scientific and liberty-loving civilization. But in another 500 years who knows–islamic culture may yet resemble the west. Until then it is best to be wary and guard the valuable and unique gains the west has made through development and struggle over two millenia.