Whom Should We Mock?

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

My last post on Daylight Atheism, asking non-believers to tone down the contempt for Harold Camping and his followers, and many of you disagreed.  Some commenters didn’t believe there was anything intrinsically destructive about mocking others, others argued that ridicule was a necessary tactic to help people deconvert.  TommyP commented to say deconversion was catalyzed by the confrontational attitudes of unbelievers, while Elizabeth Esther wrote on her blog that she was alienated by the people outside her cult who treated her beliefs with contempt, so she could not share her doubts with them.

John Loftus and PZ Myers take an extremely confrontational, contemptuous tone towards Christians, and they’ve caught a lot of flack, both from accommodationists like Chris Mooney and more hard-line atheists.  I’m skeptical about the efficacy of these tactics, but I’d love to hear from commenters like TommyP in more detail about how mockery and contempt helped them give up their old beliefs.  Even if ridicule is helpful, and worth the danger of alienation and unwarranted pride, we should be careful of  adopting condescension as a default approach if we truly want to convince people.  Before you unleash your disdain, think about these factors.

Consider your audience

Assuming that mockery can work as a shock tactic, it still won’t do any good if you write a blog for a primarily atheist audience or if you’re joking around with non-believing friends.  If your criticism isn’t accessible to the people you’re ostensibly trying to help, it’s hard to defend jeremiads as tactical rather than self-congratulatory.  And I don’t think the Christian trolls who frequent atheist blogs promising hell are likely to be reachable enough to justify any rancor as public-spirited.

They have to care about your opinion to be shamed.

For plenty of fundamentalists, the fact that we’re criticizing their beliefs is proof that we can’t be trusted.  We’re either deliberately in league with Satan or sadly deceived.  But even in milder cases, outright contempt is often a bad opening gambit.  You wouldn’t be likely to be shaken by the contrary opinions of a complete stranger, so why do you expect a Christian will take your disbelief as disproof?  This kind of strategy is most likely to work with friends or family, who have a reason to want you to think well of them.  But if you already have built up trust and respect, you can probably mound a more nuanced, substantive attack (and if you can’t, it’s time to hit the books).

What’s the marginal utility of your mocking?

The shocking fact of your disagreement will only make an impression of sheltered believers who are unaccustomed to dissent, and most of us won’t have the opportunity to try to deconvert them.  For believers who are routinely exposed to criticism, whether the universally mocked Camping or more mainstream religions that still take fire, it’s worth asking yourself how it is that your contempt will make a critical difference.  If you doubt it will, your time is probably better spent coordinating lobbying campaigns against culture war legislation or making your own beliefs defensible and accessible than writing invective on the internet.

Don’t lose your compassion

If you do take up the weapons of mockery and ridicule, have an eye to your own character.  It’s sad when people are dumb or gullible, and it’s scary when those people are in power, but the more foolish you think they are, the less culpable they must be for their error, no matter how destructive.  Intervention may be necessary, but the mentally unstable aren’t deserving of contempt of hatred, even if their actions harm themselves or others.  Abandon these tactics if they lead you into overweening pride and teach you that your intelligence/upbringing/etc gives you the right to humiliate and punish others.

So, if you’re going to take a sarcastic, mocking approach, you’d best make sure:

  1. You’re actually being heard by Christians
  2. Who care about your opinion
  3. Who need your unique brand of contempt
  4. and that you can hate the belief while loving the believer

Else, you should probably make a different use of your talents.

Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Shooting
The Frozen River: A Humanist Sermon
Weekend Coffee: February 22
Atlas Shrugged: Sixteen Tons
  • Yahzi

    You’ve totally missed the entire point of mockery. The point is to deligitamize authority.

    Christianity (and Christian leaders) exert a lot of social authority. They use part of that authority to assert that their claims are beyond question. Ergo, one cannot expect people to question those claims until that authority is called into question.

    Nobody is trying to win arguments or make converts with mockery. They are trying to show that one can mock the authoritys and get away with it. Once we have convinced believers that God will not strike them down for doubting the priest… the conversion part happens on its own.

    This fullfills all four of your conditions:
    1) The fact that people are complaining about Dawkins shows he’s being heard
    2) The fact that they are complaining so bitterly and often show they care
    3) We need every brand of contempt; we need to show that God (or his lackeys the priests) cannot punish any blasphemy, no matter how outrageous
    4) We don’t even have to love the believers. We can hate them. That works too, because all that matters is creating space to doubt the absolute hegemony of religious belief.

    Again, the religious conversion happens on its own. All we have to do is dispel the fear – and we do that by acting out and not getting punished. Our mere refusal to be silenced is the message – it is the entire message.

  • Derek

    I’m an occasional reader here, but appreciate your site much.
    I actually think Harold Camping does us a service, and no real comment is needed on our part. Without elaborating too much, I think its an opportunity for the religious to (i) experience a disbelief event and a disconnect with their religious community, since (I perceive that) most religious persons did not concur with Camping; (ii) that they see disagreement with religion and religious “authority” is commonplace; (iii) that “nothing bad happened to them” for doubting or disagreeing with the religious proclamation (of sorts); and (iv) they may become a bit more self-conscious of their own claims.
    Of course, not true of all, but hopefully the one’s with conscience and a modicum of critical thought.

  • Bob Carlson

    Sounds like you may be advocating accommodationism.

  • Chris

    Yahzi, speaking from experience, conservative preachers tend to rally the flock by claiming status as persecuted majority. The “war on Christmas” rhetoric from FOX, which was blown out of proportion a bit, is typical of that style. I think very few conservative Christians are shocked, SHOCKED when God doesn’t strike down the doubters.

    Bob, do accomodationists tend to care about deconversion?

  • Robster

    There’s so much to mock when discussing religion, faith and the folk that subscribe to it. The amusing nonsense they profess to is just that, amusing nonsense. Religious people do not take kindly to mocking and that means it’s an important weapon in getting the rational thought message across or at least to motivate some sort of consideration of the atheist message. The whole religion show is based on little more than smoke & mirrors, the believers are deluded and it’s only out of concern for them and the negative impacts of those beliefs on the good of society makes mockery more important. I mean, who doesn’t find Ken(the)Ham a joke?

  • http://twitter.com/camusdude Camusdude

    I think Yazhi is exactly right: mockery takes the wind out of the lungs of blowhards who think they know what’s right for everyone else. I’m reminded of one of my all-time favorite quotations from Mencken.

    H L Mencken, in The American Mercury, January, 1924:

    “Of a piece with the absurd pedagogical demand for so-called constructive criticism is the doctrine that an iconoclast is a hollow and evil fellow unless he can prove his case. Why, indeed, should he prove it? Is he judge, jury, prosecuting officer, hangman? He proves enough, indeed, when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing—that at least one visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts. The fact is enormously significant; it indicates that instinct has somehow risen superior to the shallowness of logic, the refuge of fools. The pedant and the priest have always been the most expert of logicians—and the most diligent disseminators of nonsense and worse. The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by such learned dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe—that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power, and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.”

  • http://oneyearskeptic.blogspot.com/ Erika

    I appreciate knowing that there are others who think that mocking is generally not the most effective strategy, even if it sometimes can be. Some people may be reached by mocking, but in my experience people are more amenable to sincere conversation.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com themann1086

    Chris Mooney is a fraud who deserves nothing but contempt. See also “Tom Johnson”.

    Point of order, as well: PZed mocks Christian beliefs extremely, and is at most dismissive of most Christians. There is a very important distinction.

  • Yahzi

    Chris@4: But that’s not true. Priests only rally as oppressed minorities when they can’t rule as absolute tyrants. The rallying is a defensive maneuver, and evidence that we are winning.

    Camusdude@6: That’s a great quote. As usual Mencken was there first.

    “Proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe—that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power, and hence a fraud.”

    This is the one and only goal of mockery. And it is working.

    As I said, the conversion happens on its own. We atheists are not out to convert anyone; we are simply trying to make it thinkable for others to dare to convert on their own. That’s all we have to do, and if it calls for abusing crackers, we’re ready to do it!

  • Void000

    First, I agree with Bob on this one, you do seem to advocating for accommodationism. I have no problem with having diplomatic atheists as part of a movement, but the atheist cause needs both diplomatic and confrontational types. This point has been made many times before (I think Greta Christina’s version is one of the best I’ve seen), so I’ll refrain from restating it again.

    Secondly, I think your 4 point list is a bit misleading, so I’m going to analyze each point.

    1. “Consider your audience” : Agreed. Remember though that your audience may not be just the person you are addressing but everyone who is listening (or reading) the discussion. In the case of very public, widespread mockery (like that directed at the Camping cult) its, well… public. A lot of people hear it, from Camping to religious moderates to atheists.

    2. “They have to care about your opinion to be shamed” : Not in the way you seem to mean. One person mocking a belief often will not have much effect, but when a huge number of people are doing it, it hits a lot harder (more on this under the next point). Also, humor can also hit very hard, even if they don’t care about your opinion. Another effective type of mockery is restating the believer’s position in a way that makes its absurdity obvious. For example, One of the quotes I use to mock fundamentalist Christians who try preaching to me is “Why would an all-powerful, all-knowing god become flesh so that he could sacrifice himself to himself so that his creations might escape the wrath of himself? Couldn’t this god, in his infinite wisdom, come up with something a little more efficient?” Sure, it won’t convert someone by itself, but I’ve found it gets the point across and makes people more susceptible to other arguments.

    3. “What’s the marginal utility of your mocking?” By analogy: What’s the marginal utility of your vote? Sure, if millions of people are voting it may seem that your vote doesn’t count, but if everyone follows that logic then no one votes (or one person does, and their vote damn well counts). If it takes 1000 arrows to down an elephant, they are ALL necessary, and they ALL count.

    4. “Don’t lose your compassion” : Generally a good point, but some of the claims you make under that heading don’t hold up. I agree that the mentally unstable are a special case in that they have a handicap that is outside their control that makes them act (in THIS case) stupidly. But not all of the Camping cultists are mentally handicapped, just as most religious people aren’t. The people are not crazy, but the beliefs sure as hell are. Additionally, your claim “the more foolish you think they are, the less culpable they must be for their error”…no, a thousand times NO. If someone is mentally handicapped that is one thing, but absent that special case, if someone is being an idiot and holding spectacularly stupid beliefs, acting on them, and possibly causing damage, they are culpable for their errors. The ‘insanity plea’ in law makes some sense, the ‘I believe in ‘ plea…not so much.

  • Patrick

    Whenever I read this sort of commentary, I tend to strongly suspect that the real position that’s doing all the work behind the scenes is the belief that religious beliefs aren’t deserving of mockery. I tend to suspect that the rest is window dressing.

    Although I’ve always found Leah’s blog title a little odd given her position on this subject. Maybe mockery is inappropriate, but subtle snark is fun?

  • Derek

    I whole heartedly agree with your posts, both this one and your previous entry. I think that the ideas that you are conveying are both accurate, and important.

    Very recently I have had the opportunity to interact with some very religious people on Facebook. I had posted a link to Jen McCreight’s blog entry about the high school in Louisiana and the senior there facing widespread ridicule for defending his right to a religious free public school. I made some comment about how sad it was that so many Americans in 2011 failed to understand what separation of church and state meant, and why it is so important. Two of my friends were offended by the piece and by “my nerve” to share my opinions that were so hurtful. Rather than take their tone (condescending and hurtful) or mock their (ridiculous) beliefs, I very methodically and sincerely responded to each of their concerns.

    There are a few legitimate reasons to react this way. First, I think that it is important to treat others the way I would like to be treated. Living as an example is valuable. I do not appreciate abrasive, disrespectful people getting in my face and when people of that ilk try to convince me of anything, I shut down right away. If the messenger cannot compose themselves, why should I think their message is worth my time?

    Secondly, it seems like the kind of mocking interactions we are talking about are the sort that happen in public places. Take my Facebook interaction for example. It is unlikely that either of the women who took issue with my posts will change their minds because of my responses, but perhaps someone in their circle whom I have never met is struggling with their faith. Perhaps they will read my thoughtful response to some rude comments and be inspired to break away, or at least do some more thinking. If I only responded with mocking tones, or derision, I am as likely to inspire a circling of the wagons phenomenon as I am to encourage free thinking.

    All this is not to say that everything has to be serious all the time. I rib my religious mother about her beliefs all the time, and she ribs me right back. However, I could never imagine saying anything that I know would make her truly upset. I think it would be counter productive. I want to engage her thinking, not her feeling.

    If you assert that engaging the feelings of believers is of similar importance to engaging their critical thinking skill, then consider that you don’t have to mock them to do it. Many of my religious friends get riled up if I make an observation about critical thought, and its absence from religion. Simply by sticking to our guns is often enough to make religious people “feel” a reaction.

    At the end of the day, everything I know about communication (undergrad/graduate classes/jobs) tells me that mockery is just not the most effective means of communication, or method of conflict resolution. As religion is arguably one of the most fruitful sources of conflict in the world, it doesn’t make sense to me to approach the enlightening of others with anything less than a sincere attitude.

  • David Jameson

    The value of mockery or ridicule is not so much about poking fun at extremists themselves (a complete waste of time and effort) but more about marginalizing them by making the absurdities blatantly obvious to those around them. The more one can get the silent majority and/or those who have not really thought about the issue much to see the danger of backward-focused public policy pushed by the irrational beliefs extremists and those looking for the support of said extremists, the better the chance of preventing policies that are actually detrimental to society going forward.

  • Yahzi

    Derke@12: “At the end of the day, everything I know about communication (undergrad/graduate classes/jobs) tells me that mockery is just not the most effective means of communication, or method of conflict resolution.”

    You are also missing the point. Before we can communicate, we must make it possible to communicate. Nobody is suggesting pointing and laughing at people you know when they say something religious. Even PZ Myers would not laugh at a little old lady coming out of church. None of the Gnu atheists are that rude. The people they make fun of are the ones who stand up and say, “What’s so stupid about my beliefs?” Those people are targets, and they need to be, because if the answer is “Nothing, dear,” then the silent majority is going to nod and go along.

    The point is to deny religion unearned respect. The ideas of religion are stupid, and people who believe them are being stupid, and these facts need to be made publicly clear.

    Let me make an analogy: how important was it to the civil rights movement that racist dirtbags be identified as racist dirtbags and scorned and abused for being racist dirtbags? The marginalization of hatred was necessary to move the conversation forward.

    First we have to abuse them to the point where they say, “I don’t want to be thought of like that.” Then we can be nice and explain how easy it is not to be thought of like that*. Until then, being understanding and accomodating just allows them to remain in their belief system – and allows, no, encourages, others to do the same.

    * Seriously, it’s easy. This is how easy it is: replace all usage of the word “believe” with “hope.” If believers did nothing more than that, atheists around the world would immediately turn into kittens.

  • http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~edmin/Pamphlets/ Cyberguy

    Mockery has its place:

    1. To move the “Overton Window” in our favour, so disrespect for religion becomes normalised.

    2. To influence those onlookers who have less emotional investment in the argument and are more easily persuaded.

    3. To move the religious person into a defensive or entrenched position, especially if it highlights their irrationality to others.

    4. Because it is fun, and after 2,000 years of atheists being on the receiving end of their twisted paradigm, the fuckers so richly deserve it.

    Obviously mockery is not appropriate when you are having a personal discussion with someone you seek to persuade – except perhaps gently to make an occasional direct point.

  • Richard Moon

    Here in the UK it is quite usual to hear mockery of religion and religious leaders on radio (BBC) and TV. Most comedians seem to be atheist or at least agnostic – you’ve heard Ricky Gervais no doubt, but he’s only one among many. I think most comedians think that the institutions and leaders (be it Pope, Archbishop or Ayatollah) are fair game but would avoid mocking their followers – for a start it’s much more comedic to attack the priveleged. In the same way they would make jokes at our (and your) political leader’s expense but less so at their followers.

    Latest surveys show that only about 50% of the population classify themselves as religious and only about 10% attend church regularly. These numbers have been falling over the last 50 years or so. There is little if any stigma attached to declaring yourself an atheist here. (Though the lack of state/church separation still gives the religious more influence than they deserve – so it’s not all good over here.)

    In the sense that comedians here are seen as cool by the young (who generally relate to iconoclasts) I think this degree of mockery has had an effect. Young people listen to Ricky Gervais et al and it makes them think.

    So mock the institutions where they are ridiculous and mock the leaders and their hypocrisy but leave the followers alone. Mock Camping but extend sympathy to those deceived, mock the Pope but extend sympathy to the abused flock. Be funny and lighten up and young people will listen.

  • DMS

    Even in this day and age, there are so, so few times when atheists can take the offensive and not be dismissed and derided en masse by the public in large. This was one of those times where we were able to do so without that contempt levelled at us. This Camping fellow broke one of the cardinal rules of religion: You can’t make pronouncements or predictions that are testable or otherwise quantifiable in any way. We could have just said “Oh well – you’ll have that”, or we could have loud, boisterous parties that mock the absurdity and ridiculousness of his claim in a way that the general public could find amusing and even join in on. In joining in, everybody was acknowledging the stupidity and false nature of religion as a whole, albeit in a tiny, pin prick, virtually subconscious way.

    Ridicule and mockery aren’t always the best tools, but there are times when they are the perfect tool for the job. Being able to mock religion in a way where anybody can join in, generally because you’re mocking some extreme form of it, is a good thing. It’s forward momentum, even if it’s creeping at a snail’s pace. I see a situation like this as a piece of cloth with a frayed edge. What happens when you trim off that edge? Where you cut starts to fray too. You snip that away too and the cycle repeats and you keep snipping and snipping until the cloth is too small to be of any substantial use. When mockery can be used successfully to trim off another frayed edge of religious belief, possibly to a large chunk of society, I am in favor of it.

    There are certainly times when a polite, well-reasoned argument has its place, but there are times when a condescending joke can be far more effective. Any time when religion can be mocked with the backing of the public at large, I feel it’s our responsibility to mock it with all the sound and fury we can muster.

  • Dan

    The lecturing pedantic tone of your essay is quite well understood here. Reminds me of Catholic School religion classes.

  • Alex SL

    I thought you were posting about Camping’s followers before, but now you turn it into a question of “the” best tactic for convincing people. First, there is no one golden formula that works best to convince everybody. Some people take you seriously only if you shout, others only if you argue carefully and quietly, and other are completely beyond reason. For the latter, and I must strongly suspect that people who are dumb enough to follow Camping in the first place are among them, ridicule or pity are just about the only options, and the latter is condescending.

    Be also aware that framing the question as “how do you convince your opposite number in discussion right now” is misleading. Often the aim is really to shift the Overton window of those watching the discussion, or to annoy them so continuously that they may slowly rethink their opinion over the next ten years. And that is where ridicule and contempt play an important or even indispensable role. It should be made clear that beliefs like those of the rapture loons are, well, ridiculously stupid. Any kind of respect is misplaced.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    Gentle mockery can be useful in tearing down the mental barrier that prevents questioning. I remember when I first heard religious jokes that poked a bit of fun at god or Jesus. On one hand, I felt a little weary since your not supposed to joke about that, but on another hand, they were funny jokes! If the joke is more funny than disrespectful, it makes it easier to take religion less seriously. It makes religion less untouchable. And once it loses its untouchable status, critical thinking and questioning can begin.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    “If you don’t like being ridiculed, be less ridiculous.”

  • Fargus

    I think that there is basically no marginal utility in mocking somebody like Camping, because everybody is mocking Camping. The marginal utility would be in mocking those who claim that Camping is a kook but believe crazy things themselves. Lash them to his beliefs, because they’re not altogether different than Camping’s in the first place.

    For instance, when people say that Camping’s error was in forgetting that the Bible says that no man will know the date of the Second Coming, we are right to point and laugh at those people because implicit in their argument is that they, like Camping, believe in the Second Coming. That is, their argument is roughly the same as, “Of course Jesus is coming back, just not this Saturday.” That is what deserves mockery, especially because of the rank hypocrisy implicit in their criticism of Camping while holding those views.

    But in general, I don’t think it’s worth mocking people like Camping because everybody already is. Similarly, what’s the marginal utility in mocking the Westboro Baptist Church? Everybody hates/mocks them. You’re a drop in the ocean. The real trick is turning it around and showing how what they’re preaching isn’t that far-out a reading of the Bible which other “serious” people claim is the literal truth.

  • Mark

    To me it is no different than making fun of someone who believes so strongly in astrology or palm reading that they center their whole life around it. Personally, I think that most people just say that they are christian because they are afraid of what other people would think of them if they said otherwise. I am certain that the majority of people who profess to believe in that stuff, if wired to a lie detector, would fail miserably. In fact that is not a half bad idea. Set up a polygraph and invite Christians to profess their faith publicly. That would be an interesting social experiment.

  • http://blog.OklahomaAtheists.com D4M10N

    Yahzi and Fargus are correct, IMO. The former says we need mockery to help delegitimize religious authorities, and the latter points out that we need to focus our ridicule on prominent religious authorities who are preaching harmful messages to large groups of followers. I think this is spot on, and moreover, by focusing our derision and laughter upon public figures such as the Pope or James Dobson we avoid, to some extent, mocking skepticurious believers more directly, and thereby turning them away from further investigation.

  • archimedez


    Humor is its own reward, and joking and ridicule are honest responses to absurdity.

    However, present evidence from empirical studies (not anecdotes and personal opinion) that shows that using humor and ridicule, all else being equal, as compared to other non-humorous expressions, leads to lower rates of rejection of the religious beliefs in question, and then you will have some warrants for the argument you are making.

  • Dark Jaguar

    I believe that calling out nonsense as nonsense is important, and also believe belittlement and insults can be useful. I also think that the opposite approach is useful too. I think the diversity of approaches is great.

    Sometimes though, it does seem to me like people can go too far either way. When people are so intent on being polite that they don’t criticize ANY beliefs they find nonsensical, it’s useless. On the flip side, if someone is only ruthlessly attacking someone, personally, for being a moron with no sense and failing to even bring up WHY they think that, problems in someone’s position for example, they’re not really arguing a point at all, just basically being a jerk to put it one way. This isn’t to say calling someone’s position stupid is bad, if it is stupid, it’s stupid. But, often times it pays to explain WHY you think it’s stupid instead of just blanket dismissal. (Dismissal does pay sometimes too though. If someone claims you are immoral because the Bible says so, I think dismissal is the best possible response.)

    The accommodationists, the original ones at any rate, aren’t helping. They’re too busy criticizing the direct approach to realize that their approach is almost agreeing with the opposition. However, as a result some people have started waving around the “accomodationist” accusation to anyone that suggests any insult is unfair. Heck, just recently I got into a heated debate with some people saying that it crosses the line to throw stuff at people as a form of protest, and I got smacked with the accomodationist label, even though in all honesty I’m perfectly willing to call out people on nonsense when I see it and have gotten into trouble with some members of my own family for my “rudeness”.

    I guess what I’m saying is, no matter what your approach to someone’s ideas, whether polite or direct and rude when needed, don’t forget that’s a human being you’re talking to, not just some creature to be used to further your ends. Well, that’s my position.

  • David Hart

    Another pro-mocker is this guy (declaration of interest: he’s my brother).

  • Tacroy

    The thing is, for some reason both the “New Atheist”* tendency to be abrasive and the magnitude of that abrasion is hugely overstated. I mean, I’ve never seen the behavior Derek describes coming from anyone but the religious.

    Just look at Pharyngula, what most people seem to think is the epitome of this “abrasion”. What exactly has PZ written that is so worthy of condemnation? What post has he made that is so worthy of being tut-tutted? Nobody ever seems to mention specifics; we’re all just supposed to vaguely know what he’s done. I’ve never seen anyone say “this, specifically, is something a new atheist posted that was too harsh, too mocking”. Even in this very article, you mention no specifics, Leah, you just say that “people are too harsh”. What gives? Where are we being too harsh?

    Anyway, the harshest of PZ’s posts that I can think of would be the cracker incident, but even that was in response to something ridiculous that had been done by the religious.

    The stories of atheists yelling in people’s faces come only from the Tom Johnsons of the world, as far as I am aware, and never from a more reputable source.

    *John Stuart Mill is new, right?

  • Dark Jaguar

    Yeah PZ’s got a good balance going. I love reading about him taking down another creationist, and he’s pretty direct. I really can’t fault the guy most of the time (the few exceptions are completely off-topic stuff like comments on video games or this weird bug he’s got about literally redefining the word atheism, to which I say, good luck with that).

    That said… the commentate around there, as anywhere, is all over the board. It’s not the “big wigs” I’m looking at so much as the small wigs.

    Oh, and don’t get me started on Richard Dawkins, that is, his detractors. I honestly don’t see how that guy got on the “four horsemen” list. He’s about the most polite actively speaking atheist out there, and the only fault that others find is that he refuses to allow that politeness to compromise his honesty.

  • http://www.thinkingmeat.com Mary

    When I could start to laugh at some of the silly and harmful things I was taught by the church, the guilt and fear started to loosen their grip on me. As a child and a teenager, I thought that there was something wrong with me if I didn’t agree with the church, which was scary. When I started to realize that the world was full of perfectly fine people who found all the fear-mongering, guilt-mongering, and superstition to be ridiculous and laughable, it was a big help to me. Thank you, Monty Python! (and others, of course)

  • Tolpuddle Martyr

    I don’t mock Christianity because I’m trying to “deconvert” people, I mock it when it’s ridiculous!

    In my private life I don’t mock peoples beliefs unless they are being ridiculous with them, like a fellow at my work last year who got all angsty because Prime Minister Julia Gillard is an Atheist.

    He complained that a prime minister should believe in “something”, I reminded him that her conservative Christian predecessor John Howard believed in “non core promises”, he queried what Christmas would mean without Jesus to which I answered “food”. I didn’t “deconvert” him but I did give him space for thought and his opinions became less obnoxious during our lunch breaks.

    I read PZ Myers and FSTDT because they give me belly laughs, not because I’m on a crusade! Mockery and satire are the hallmarks of an advanced civilization.

  • http://www.elizabethesther.com Elizabeth Esther

    Hello! I saw my entry was linked and decided to see what was going on over here. I may be the only believer, here. And a Catholic to boot! ACK! RUN! :) I would just like to add one small note, here, about why the mockery of atheists and others outside my cult did not help me: their tactics reminded me too much of the disdainful proselytizing that went on in my own church. I got the same feeling that they were trying to “convert” me–except whereas my group tried to convert sinners to faith in Christ, atheists tried to convert me to non-belief. I didn’t need anyone to try and “prove” to me that I was wrong or that my beliefs were erroneous or that I wasn’t thinking critically or that I was unfamiliar with the scientific method. Mostly, I needed someone to give me the freedom to doubt–WITHOUT an agenda of their own. If I was only allowed to doubt within the context of their agenda; ie. with the goal of giving up my beliefs entirely–then I still felt manipulated. But if I was allowed to doubt without any preconceived ideas about where my doubt should take me, well, that was the kind of doubt I could appreciate. Mockery is a tactic I often saw used within my cultish church and I’m pretty sure it never resulted in conversion…..just thought I’d share. Thanks for allowing me to comment here. EE.

  • Yahzi

    EE@32“Mostly, I needed someone to give me the freedom to doubt–WITHOUT an agenda of their own”

    And atheist mockery gave you that freedom. Without us flipping off God and getting away with it, you would have never had the courage to doubt. Not because you are a coward, but because you are a sensible human being. If literally everyone around you assumes a thing to be true, you’d have to be crazy to doubt it. Piercing the shroud of religous belief requires a conviction that most people (who are, after all, busy trying to make a living) don’t have time for.

    I am sorry that you wanted someone to doubt just a little of your absurd beliefs, without doubting all of your absurd beliefs; but you should be glad that people like PZ Myers were there to show you that it is, after all, just a cracker. Or wait – was that one of the beliefs you wanted respected?

    Also, you don’t have to thank Ebon for being allowed to comment here with your differing viewpoint. Because Ebon is an atheist, your differing viewpoint is automatically allowed to be posted. You complained about the atheist agenda, but here it is, in its full glory: the atheist agenda is that everyone be honest and not censor information (at any level, including self-deception). And now I have to be honest and tell you that if that agenda offends you, you’re still part of the problem.


    What I said above is mocking. I know that. But it is also true. And mockery is the nicest way I can say it. Trying to explain to you that even though you’re doubting dogma and being all open-minded and nice to us hell-bound abominations, you are still part of the problem… well, there’s no nice way to say it. Hence mockery, where at least the barbed points can be brushed off if you’re not ready to hear them.

    In other words, if we didn’t laugh at you, we would have to cry.

  • Rollingforest

    I have a mixed opinion. Mocking is useful for when your target audience is people who are barely hanging onto their faith. If a person doesn’t have any loyalties to a particular faith (either personally or from family connections) then they might be receptive to laughing at the ridiculous activities of a particular faith. There is always the danger that you’ll be labeled as anti-Semitic or an Islamophobe but if you do it right you can make it clear that you are mocking the institution not the people.

    However, that being said, if you are talking to anyone who has any connection to the faith at all, either personally or through family members, mocking is just going to make them hate you. If they think you are an asshole, they aren’t going to listen. A better plan is to ask them “why do you believe that?” When they answer, ask “But what about [point that contradicts their belief]. What do you think about that?” If you keep asking them questions and make them think about it themselves, then they will be more willing to consider these ideas. Making them answer questions makes it feel like they are the ones who came up with the idea and they basically deconvert themselves. Most Christians know that most conversions come via friendships. Atheists need to realize that most deconversions come from friendships as well.

    P.S. It is really sad that my spell check tried to change the word “deconvert” into “reconvert”.

  • Wednesday

    I’d just like to say that I’ve experienced “mocking beliefs to show how silly they are and convert the person holding them” before. From a theist, actually, who was trying to convert “unhappy” atheists, because, basically, “lolz, how can you know there isn’t a god, isn’t it arrogant to presume you know god doesn’t exist? It begs the question why are you so closed-minded when you insist you’re rational.”

    It was not particularly effective.

    So, I argue that if we support mockery-as-a-conversion-tool, then we open ourselves up to the same treatment by people don’t know how to properly use the phrase “begs the question.”

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    Mockery is a slippery slope. You don’t have to slide very far to be a bigot. One definition of a bigot is a person who cannot accept any worldview other than their own.

    Then you become the very thing you rail against.

    Humor has its place. Mockery can turn into bullying and bullying is unbecoming and fast becoming illegal.

  • TommyP

    Here’s where I was coming from with backing up ridicule’s positive effects. I was “saved” as a young child, and lived rather isolated at the time. There was little of value on television to watch, no internet, and as I was a child, very little in the way of intelligent subject matter being taught in school. As I went through elementary and into middle school, I was being indoctrinated deeper into a very religious way of viewing everything. I saw all that happened as spiritually significant. I wept myself to sleep at night, in fear of Satan’s sweet whispers of doubt, of his distorting lens of the Worldly. I tried, and failed, to save other kids, to cast the demons out in JESUS’ NAME, AMEN! I wept as I tried to explain how they would go to hell, didn’t they understand that? I didn’t want to be “Satan’s Soccer Ball” a favourite term of my mother, at the time. Every time I got bad grades, I felt like I was letting down Jesus, and not listening closely enough to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit. I went through much of my childhood in a state of terror and disgust. There was very little thrown in my path to dissuade me from digging in deeper and deeper. Even if less-strident Christians disagreed with the particulars, they still validated my faith in God. The only thing I ever had to question this paralyzing parade of intellectual death was my own tendency to be smarter than the people around me and to ask questions and seek answers. But when you’re isolated and live apart from “Sin” and go to schools with Christian textbooks…. there’s just not much there to grab onto.

    All this morass was pierced from the outside, finally, by the constant ridicule of just a few people. People who were crude, and didn’t have reverence for the Holy nature of my beliefs. People who DARED to FORBID me to distribute Bibles on campus (THE HORROR)

    I prayed to God desperately to open their eyes. The world was going to belong to Satan soon, and I wanted to save as many souls as I could before my young life was extinguished in the trials and tribulations surely looming ahead.

    And people laughed at me. And pushed me. I got beaten up, my Bible was thrown in the trash by a random kid.

    I wept as I prayed to God, please, DO something, help me defeat Satan!

    Ridicule continued, thankfully, it continued. I was made to feel like a fool, a “fool for Jesus” as we said back then, trying to make light of it, and to ignore the fact that it was actually a pretty apt description. The Youth pastors tried to get us to see it as a badge of honor.

    But I began to think, what if the bullies are actually right? I mean, God is EVERYTHING. Anyone who says they doubt him, they’re only saying it so they can live a life of Sin. in their heart, they know God is there; Jesus is knocking at the door, asking to be let in, but they turn their back. Right? Didn’t I KNOW God was real, without a doubt?

    I realized I didn’t know beyond a doubt. I started to see that it was actually reasonable to doubt and question things. I started to view myself through the eyes of those who had stood me down and yelled in my face, had made me feel like shit. I started to understand why. To them, I was a death obsessed kid, a sick little fuck waving around a bible and jumping at demons in the toybox toys of others. I literally had my head up my ass; I realized I hadn’t been really questioning anything. That disgusted me. I had thought myself quite wise and really beyond reproach in my faith of Jesus, Blood, etc etc etc. I realized that I had, in fact, been slacking so badly with using my brain that I was living in a fog of denial and fear instead.

    Well, I was humbled, I tell ya. Didn’t take long for me to start answering questions I’d had, and finding new ones. Didn’t take long before I lost my faith in the bible, then jesus, then the gods altogether.

    I want to thank the bullies and the hecklers and the people who didn’t take God for an answer. The brave and angry who stood up to the towering mountain of bullshit I was shoving in their faces, and called it for what it was.

    You people saved my life.

  • Bob Carlson

    Bob, do accomodationists tend to care about deconversion?

    The primary concern of accommodationists seems to be that we must be willing to pretend that science and religion are compatible in order to make progress in the effort to diminish ignorance of the realities of evolution and science more generally among religiously inclined Americans. Telling things like they are doesn’t have to be done in a way that is mean and derisive, and I think Jerry Coyne does a good job of that (e.g. here) and, in my opinion, effectively disputes the necessity of the accommodationist approach.

  • http://www.twitter.com/camusdude camusdude

    Humor is its own reward, and joking and ridicule are honest responses to absurdity.

    Brilliantly put!

    1. To move the “Overton Window” in our favour, so disrespect for religion becomes normalised.

    A very good point.

    I suppose it also comes down to your general view of life. If you look at it as sort of a cosmic joke on us, with an ironic view (as Hitchens puts it), or if you go even further, as in my case, to pretty much full on fatalism and nihilism, mockery (online, of course – I’m a recluse IRL) is a quite enjoyable pastime. I heartily endorse schadenfreude when Christian politicians have sex scandals. I enjoy mocking idiocy and I will always do so freely, if I want to.

  • AKRon

    I’m more angry than mocking. Angry that so much crap is getting pushed into law, like anti-abortion, and creation “science”. Angry when I hear someone saying they feel sorry for those angry, lonely atheists.
    I do consider my audience though. No sense shutting down their systems with attacks. I try taking the sneaky approach.
    I do like reading PZ Myer’s rants though!

  • David H. Miller


    I am, sometimes, mocking of the beliefs of the true believers *because* I respect them as human beings.

    To pretend that I take beliefs seriously that I in fact view as obvious garbage is simply dishonest. To present my actual view that those beliefs are patently ludicrous is to treat the other person as someone mature enough to handle the truth about my feelings, and responsible enough to decide for herself whether or not to take my views seriously.

    Will my being upfront and open in that way mean that I invariably fail to “deconvert” the person I am talking with? Maybe. It’s not my job to find the most efficient way to manipulate other people so as to guide them in the direction I want. It’s my job, if I want to have a conversation with them at all, to honestly present my own views, and let the other person make of those views what she will.

    Frankly, I doubt that *anyone* has a good technique for “deconverting” true believers. As Durkheim suggested so long ago, religion is basically a badge of group identity: you believe (or try to believe, or claim to believe) in patently bizarre propositions in order to prove your loyalty to the group.

    It’s like the pledges to a frat when they go through “Hell Week”: they endure the absurdities and indignities of Hell Week precisely to prove their loyalty to the frat.

    And, perhaps, that indicates the best reason for mockery of religion and similar nonsense: as more and more of us point out that we do *not* view such evil nonsense as socially acceptable, we offer a social alternative to those tempted to become true believers. They can achieve social acceptance among the true believers but social rejection among us by drinking the Kool-Aid. Or, they can be rejected by the true believers but accepted by us if they reject the Kool-Aid.

    If we can reach a tipping point where the social pressures are more or less balanced, perhaps, people might even focus on what is actually true.

    And, that would be nice.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  • http://zyx.posterous.com Roger3

    Aside from Yahzi above pretty much nailing it in regard to external audience, unless you also take into account the effects of mockery on the internal audience, you’re always going to miss the point.

    PZ et al. are cheerleaders. They serve a very important role.