On the Uses of Ridicule

I’ve told you all the story of how I became an atheist. But I’ve never written about what came before that: what made this a topic of interest for me, what first motivated me to think about these issues at all. Well, today I want to tell that part of the story.

This was around my last year of high school. I was surfing Internet chat rooms when I saw someone in one of them give an offhand reference to the site Things Creationists Hate by Bob Riggins, a sarcastic list of things that contradict creationist belief – everything from sand piles to the apostle Paul.

I read the whole page the first time I saw it, and I was hooked. I went back several times in the following weeks, reading new things as the author added them, and then branched out into exploring other websites, including some with a snarky and irreverent attitude towards religion (there was one I remember called Fade to Black, now defunct). I wasn’t yet an atheist at that point, but it got me to realize that claims made in the name of religion could be questioned, even mocked – and that was what set the stage for my subsequent deconversion.

I bring this all up because, yet again, there’s an ongoing tiff with an accommodationist – in this case the astronomy blogger Phil Plait – who’s chastising the skeptical and atheist community for being excessively vitriolic and insulting:

“How many of you here today used to believe in something – used to, past tense – whether it was flying saucers, psychic powers, religion, anything like that… [and] no longer believe in those things and became a skeptic because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged and a retard?”

It’s hard to disagree with the point as he phrases it, but the problem is this: Plait never said who, specifically, he was talking about. In fact, he made it a point not to cite any specific examples. This makes it very difficult to evaluate the merit of his argument, and raises the suspicion that he’s just throwing up an inflammatory straw man. I don’t know very many skeptics whose approach consists of getting in people’s faces and screaming insults at them. But I do know many skeptics who mercilessly mock ridiculous beliefs, who argue using snark and sarcasm, and who forthrightly call irrational nonsense what it is. Is Plait talking about them? Is he talking about me? Where, specifically, does he think the line is? His argument isn’t helpful if it doesn’t answer these questions.

Richard Dawkins penned a comment on Jerry Coyne’s site in response:

As Jerry said, Plait quoted no examples of skeptics who scream insults in people’s face. I don’t think I have ever met, seen or heard one. But I could quote plenty of skeptics who employ ridicule, who skewer pretentiousness, stupidity and ignorance using wit. Listening to such ridicule, and reading it, is one of the great joys life has to offer. And I suspect that it is very effective.

My second point is that Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. Speaking for myself, it is often a third party (or a large number of third parties) who are listening in, or reading along… when I employ ridicule against the arguments of a young earth creationist, I am almost never trying to convert the YEC himself. That is probably a waste of time. I am trying to influence all the third parties listening in, or reading my books. I am amazed at Plait’s naivety in overlooking that and treating it as obvious that our goal is to convert the target of our ridicule. Ridicule may indeed annoy the target and cause him to dig his toes in. But our goal might very well be (in my case usually is) to influence third parties, sitting on the fence, or just not very well-informed about the issues. And to achieve that goal, ridicule can be very effective indeed.

As usual, Dawkins is correct, and I offer myself as Exhibit A. The whole reason I’m an atheist, the reason that Ebon Musings and Daylight Atheism exist, is because of those websites which made me realize that religious beliefs could be poked fun at. Ridicule has its uses: If skillfully deployed in an argument, it can be more persuasive than anything else – nothing gets someone on your side like making them laugh. It helps break down the stifling aura of solemnity and respect that religions have convinced themselves they deserve, and that they use to smother legitimate criticism. And it communicates, more eloquently than any cool and dispassionate argument ever could, that it’s okay not to believe this stuff!

Unlike some people who are receiving honoraria from the Templeton Foundation, I credit Phil Plait with good faith. I think his words were intended to remedy what he sees as a genuine problem, not as a cynical ploy to shut atheists up. But, again, by failing to identify any real instances of what he sees as unhelpful behavior and instead beating up on a straw man, he doesn’t offer any guidelines even to people who might have been persuaded. I’d much rather err on the side of too much criticism of religion, rather than too little, and for all that his remarks were intended as a helpful nudge, they’re a nudge in the wrong direction.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://onthewaytoithaca.wordpress.com EvanT

    Thomas Paine obviously disagreed with Plait and his writings certainly utilize ridicule (a lot):

    “The hinting and intimidating manner of writing that was formerly used on subjects of this kind [religion], produced skepticism, but not conviction. It is necessary to be bold. Some people can be reasoned into sense, and others must be shocked into it. Say a bold thing that will stagger them, and they will begin to think.” (from a letter to Elihu Palmer)

  • Eurekus

    Use ridicule, shock, horror or whatever we can think of. Well maybe not horror.

    It eventually worked on me, so it can work on others too. We need to use the equivalent of electric shock therapy on some people. Such their infection of faith requires.

  • http://toomanytribbles.blogspot.com/ toomanytribbles

    ridicule is a powerful tool and i, for one, will not lay down this arm.

    incidentally, plait is not above using terms such as ‘stupid’ in his posts, so i believe he has examples quite handy.

    here’s one:
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/09/20/one-backwards-leap-for-texas/

  • NoAstronomer

    I found Phil’s admonition to be somewhat disingenuous since he can be very aggressive and quite insulting in defence of topics that are close to his own heart (vaccination and science funding to cite two examples). In fact I largely stopped reading his blog because his posts were becoming monotonous.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Done well, sarcasm approaches art.

  • kurmujjin

    I thought the PZ Myers thing with the cracker was over-the-top. Just seemed mean-spirited to me, and likely the type of thing that Plait was speaking of.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Maybe somebody should tell Phil not to be so insulting and demeaning when he’s telling us not to be insulting and demeaning.

    Repeat ad nauseum (except I’m already nauseated).

    :D

  • L.Long

    My deconversion started young and evolved from questioning with logic and advancing to disbelief. I discovered the humorous ridicule late with listening to George.
    But there is a big difference in say some one is an idiot and screaming insults in their face.
    I think Phil was correct in the talk,which was also very good, but he over emphasized a very small minority doing something only a few times in anger. Almost all the people I’ve interfaced with usually use humor for most part and are really sad when it comes to really stupid parts or actions.

  • un

    One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.

    H.L. Mencken

  • Wednesday

    @kurmujjin – You do know that PZ Myers did the thing with the cracker in response to someone who identified as Catholic getting death threats for taking a communion wafer out of church, right?

    We can disagree about whether or not PZ’s chosen method of protest was the best response to that, but “mean-spirited” is, I think, really not the right adjective when you consider the full context.

  • Quath

    I found the whole PZ Myers cracker incident quite enlightening. It made me wonder why Catholics thought chewing up and digesting Jesus hurt Jesus less than poking him once with something sharp. Just trying to understand what was going through a Catholic’s mind floored me. I think the whole transubstantiation concept is ripe for ridicule due to how ludicrous it is.

  • http://peternothnagle.com Peter N

    kurmujjin,

    P.Z.’s desecration of the communion wafer wasn’t over the top — in fact, it was practically nothing at all. It took him a matter of seconds, and less than an hour to write about.

    If some people want to make more out of the incident than that, they need to read
    what P.Z. wrote about it first. Then they might understand a little about what they are attacking, and, by implication, what they are defending.

    I’ve considered both sides, and P.Z. is one of my personal heroes.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    When I was in second grade a classmate taunted “Oh my GAWD, you believe in SANTA CLAUS?” and I stopped believing that very moment. I thank him for nudging me towards skepticism.

  • Charlie

    The fact that I found PZ’s site, abrasive, mocking style and all, is one of the main reasons that I am an atheist today. That style of criticism was exactly what I needed to see as an evangelical Christian.

  • http://prinzler@calpoly.edu Paul

    Let’s not forget that PZ not only desecrated the cracker, but he also desecrated a few pages from the Koran as well as from The God Delusion. That type of even-handedness you gotta love, and also greatly tempers the sting of any one of the insults, it seems to me.

    I can’t help but remind everyone, too, that he desecrated the cracker (and the other items) with a rusty nail! Whadda guy! ; )

  • Lion IRC

    Ebonmuse wrote…

    The whole reason I’m an atheist, the reason that Ebon Musings and Daylight Atheism exist, is because of those websites which made me realize that religious beliefs could be poked fun at.

    The whole reason?

    Poking fun? Gloating over the misfortunes of other people? Crowing over the miseries of others?

    Prominent atheist spokespeople (like Arif Ahmed) in AvT debates refer to the subject they are debating as a very serious matter.

    If you just want to make fun of people knock yourself out. Christians especially understand that they will be mocked. You think making fun of a Christian is in any way going to set you apart from the common garden variety of anti-theist with their vulgar and parochial humour?

    Lion (IRC)

  • jack

    Lion,

    I don’t know any atheists, least of all Ebon, who gloat or crow over the misfortune or misery of other people. If we ridicule some aspect of religious ritual that, to an outsider, is obviously ridiculous, that is making fun of the silly ritual, not any person.

    I also assume you cannot be suggesting that Christians are in misery. My understanding is that Christianity brings joy, peace, love, contentment, etc.

    Having said all that, I think I know what you’re getting at, and I may be more empathetic about it than most folks on this list, so let me try to rephrase your comment. Tell me if this is what you really mean:

    Many people turn to religion or spiritual beliefs when they are in a state of misery or misfortune. They see their religious beliefs as their salvation from this misery, they have an emotional attachment to, and fondness for, their supernatural God, their saints, their holy books, their sacred icons, their sacraments and rituals. For someone to ridicule any of this is to open up a painful wound, to touch a raw nerve, to attack something to which they have an emotional bond.

    Is that what you mean? If so, I agree that there may be good reason in some situations for atheists to think twice before laying on the ridicule. After all, one of Ebon’s improved 10 commandments is, “In all things, strive to cause no harm”.

    But you need also to consider that religious beliefs cause a great deal of harm, and that, on balance, the world would be a less violent place without them. Also, the comfort that some suffering souls derive from religious belief can backfire. When their prayers go unanswered — as they inevitably will, given enough time — when their loving God lets them down and something truly terrible happens to them or their loved ones, then they suffer not only with that immediate tragedy, but also with their feeling of betrayal and abandonment by the God they thought had loved them, and had been looking out for their well-being.

    Sometimes facing the truth, even a disillusioning truth, can be less painful than trying to cling to a once-comforting but false belief.

  • Rollingforest

    How about never ridiculing people, but always ridiculing ideas that are false. Is that a fair system?

  • Demonhype

    What part of “death threats” do people not understand? Or do people just choose to forget that part of the story so PZ sounds “meaner”?

    He didn’t just wake up one day and say “damn but those Catholics are stupid! I’m going to fuck up one of their magic wafers just to get under their skin, for no reason at all, because I’m a mean ol’ ghoul who pisses on all the neighborhood kids and steals their toys just for fun.” As Wednesday above said, you may not agree with the form of protest, but lets not pretend he did it out of the blue just to be some cantankerous old grinch kicking ice cream cones out of the hands of small children just to watch them cry.

    Some people need to get it through their heads that he was reacting directly to a situation in which Catholics were sending DEATH THREATS over a magic cracker, not to mention they assaulted a college student inside a church, called for him to be expelled from a public university, and I believe I saw some calls for him to be brought up on kidnapping charges. All because of some perceived slight over a magic cracker.

    DEATH THREATS!!!!! I cannot stress this enough!!!!

    Why does this not register as a disproportionate response? And why do so many people choose to forget this part of the story? Is it because some people want to believe atheists and PZ especially are just meanies who hate God and Love and such and if they include this part of the story it doesn’t work to confirm their bias?

    Ya know what? I think that’s probably the case.

    Seriously, this reminds me of the cartoonist who drew Mohammad and then got attacked in his home with an axe-wielding Islamic fanatic. And a ton of people were angry at the cartoonist while ignoring the attempted murder, or attempted to justify the murder attempt with the usual “well, if you don’t want to be attacked by maniacal religious fanatics, you shouldn’t exercise your free speech!” Which smacks of poorly veiled fatwa envy–they’re secretly ecstatic, living vicariously through the axe-wielding religious madman, and they’re actually on his side and hoping that the fear of being cut to ribbons will be an example for any other unbelievers who might want to open their mouths.

    There is literally no proportion in people’s minds when it comes to religion. It is as they say: For a believer to be considered militant, he needs to actually kill someone or blow something up. For an atheist to be considered militant, all he has to do is open his mouth and talk.

    Though I would add this: Even then, there is a strong likelihood that the atheist will be perceived as the greater threat.

    Also–what is it with the “Christians are so persecuted, boo hoo”? There is nothing more sickening than an overprivileged majority playing the martyr card.

  • Scotlyn

    I’m not certain how true it is that the old Celtic bards were permitted, nay encouraged, to satirise their kings. But it rings true, because satire is a near-perfect way of provoking people to question ill-founded authority, and is therefore an antidote to the corrupting effects of power.

    Poking fun at beliefs IS different to poking fun at people, and it is a hugely effective tool which we should be loathe to give up. Beliefs have corrupting power over people, and we need the antidote of satire. Keep it up, Ebon.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Yep
    I never tire of repeating this quote of Greta Christina’s

    Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there’s no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it’s just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses…and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it’s mistaken. It’s persuasion. It’s the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride

    All ideas should be up for ridicule when they make themselves ridiculous. Religion is the perfect target in this respect.

  • http://whoreofalltheearth.blogspot.com Leah

    I think if done right, ridicule has its place, and NonStampCollector’s videos on youtube are the paragon of ridicule done right to make a point and get people to laugh and then take a step back and more objectively examine their beliefs.

  • kennypo65

    Religion is a cancer and must be eradicated. I will make no apologies for this stance. Don’t like it? GFYS.

  • kennypo65

    I’m sorry, I wanted to elaborate but was interrupted. In 1982 my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Rather than continuing the chemotherapy(Which shrunk the tumor from a grapefruit to a golfball)my dad embraced his faith and macrobiotics. Using scare tactics about the side effects of her chemo, he convinced my mother to go along. I objected, but I was a 17 year old kid, so I was ignored. At her(inevitable) funeral I told him He killed her, not the cancer. We never spoke again. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. I will use any means at my disposal, including “being a dick” to make my point.

  • jack

    kennypo65,

    It’s none of my business, so feel free to ignore this, but your comment really got my attention. First, my sympathies. I know this happened long ago, but obviously the wound is deep. Is your father still alive? Have you or he ever tried to make contact over those decades? Was his faith shaken, or did he retreat more deeply into it?

    Your painful story is exactly the kind of thing to which I alluded in my comment to Lion, above.

    I’m no shrink or guru, but I’ve lived long enough to have suffered failed relationships, including hard times with parents. Sometimes the damage can be repaired, and sometimes the effort is worth it. Forgiveness can sometimes lift huge burdens. Whether it’s possible with your father, only you can judge. In any case, I wish you the best.

  • kennypo65

    To Jack: Thank you. I tried when I was 25, but he had remarried to a woman who was a fundie and so was he. I told him I was an atheist, and that was that. He died three years ago. Nietsche said that which does not kill you etc. I am stronger I am who I am(to quote that great western philosopher Popeye) and it’s OK. I will fight for reality over superstition anytime and anywhere. I feel that I owe it to my mom and everyone else who died needlessly because of woo beliefs.

  • Karen

    I was one of those “wavering on the fence” third parties (in a virtual sense) that Dawkins refers to. Nasty, infantile insults didn’t help the atheist cause in my mind, but reading pointed, rational arguments against Christianity and theism in general was amazing to me.

    As a lifelong evangelical, I had no idea that my beliefs could be challenged, and eventually demolished, using reason.

    I take Plait’s point that there are often supercilious, pompous atheists online who are rude for the sake of being rude. But I also think that there’s a great deal of good to come from atheists who aren’t afraid of “offending” the religious and will point out when religious ideas are invalid and ignorant.

    Greta Christina gave a talk recently at the SSA conference where she tackles this debate. Very wisely (as usual) she makes that point that it’s a both/and situation, not an either/or. As in, we need both in-your-face atheists and moderate atheists, just as the gay movement needed both types in its early days. Hemant has a link to the entire lecture. It is excellent.

  • RiddleOfSteel

    Jack wrote:
    Many people turn to religion or spiritual beliefs when they are in a state of misery or misfortune. They see their religious beliefs as their salvation from this misery, they have an emotional attachment to, and fondness for, their supernatural God, their saints, their holy books, their sacred icons, their sacraments and rituals. For someone to ridicule any of this is to open up a painful wound, to touch a raw nerve, to attack something to which they have an emotional bond.

    Jack, you make some interesting observations. Asking a believer to consider the possibility that a deity does not exist, may carry with it more than simply loss of the belief. Marriage, friendships and social relationships may be tied up with the belief, and hence potentially compromised. There is the aspect of having to face the end of one’s existence directly for perhaps the first time. And there is the possibility of, in a way, losing loved ones for a second time. The loved ones have died once, and now they “die” again, as the believer realizes they really are gone, never to reunite. I think it is worth keeping this in mind when conversing with believers.

    Personally, I think ridicule can be an overused item in believer/non-believer relations on the web (along with silly analogies sometimes used by both sides). Perhaps the internet allows for things to amp up more easily, by providing folks with anonymity, and allowing them to stew over comments, without aid of non-verbal and more intimate communication methods that could resolve matters more quickly. Certainly ridicule can have it’s place, I just think sometimes people are too quick resorting to it.

  • Rollingforest

    If you are looking for something besides ridicule to use, then maybe it would help to say “I wish there was a loving God who cared about everyone, but that just doesn’t seem to be true.” This makes it impossible for anyone you are arguing with to say that you hate God and forces them to come up with reasons why you should believe in God which you can shoot down one by one politely. While this might not convince your opponent, maybe it will convince the other people listening in.

  • aerie

    Ridicule did not cause me to become an atheist. What it did do, is cause me to think! And once you allow yourself to think, well…you can’t unring a bell.When I came across an atheist blog and stopped to read out of curiosity, I wasn’t surprised at the remarks from the atheists. It was the nastiness/ignorance/ridiculousness of what my fellow christians were saying. And the ones who sound like they’ve been love-bombed w/jesus & sound like chanting zombies. The absolute craziness of how it sounds to other people embarrassed me and rightfully/thankfully so! No way I could continue to call myself a member let alone a ‘sister in christ’.


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