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.

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