Theist-Atheist Discourse: Some Thoughts on Victor Reppert’s Post

Victor Reppert and I have been having a productive and healthy exchange about the tone of theist-atheist discourse. If you haven’t already seen it, I encourage you to read his latest post on the topic.

Disclosure

Before commenting on his post, I want to provide a sort of “disclosure” statement about biases, similar to what you might find in a peer-reviewed medical journal article about a new drug. I am not a so-called ‘New Atheist.’ In fact, I don’t even care for that label, since I think there is literally nothing “new” about the “new atheism” from a philosophical perspective. I’ve only read one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheists: Richard Dawkins. While I was very impressed by his book The Blind Watchmaker when I first read it years ago, I was not impressed with his God Delusion. In fact, I’ve criticized his “Ultimate Boeing 747″ argument for God’s nonexistence. I own Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, but I haven’t read it yet. I have not read any of Harris’s or Hitchens’s books.

Probably one of the things that does genuinely differentiate ‘New Atheists’ from other atheists (like myself) is their tone and their approach to activism. I agree with Dawkins that there is nothing wrong with questioning, challenging, debating, disputing, etc. religious beliefs. I probably disagree with Dawkins over when, where, and how to go about doing that. (I’ve publicly criticized atheists before when I thought their tone was out of line: see here, here, and here for examples.)

I also disagree with the goal of trying to condemn theistic belief as irrational, partly because I don’t think it is irrational and partly because I think that’s a counter-productive public relations strategy.As an atheist and an American, I am extremely grateful to live in the United States where the First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion (or lack thereof) for all Americans, including minorities like me. That was a big motivator for me to join the U.S. Air Force; I took very seriously the saying, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I, for one, worry about religious zealots trying to take away the civil liberties of atheists like me; it would be horrible if ‘New Atheists’ were so offensive to the theistic majority that theists actually did strip away the rights of atheists.

Comments on Reppert’s Post

Let’s turn to Reppert’s post. He writes:

Jeff: I think the New Atheists are doing things which are a fundamental betrayal of the basic rules which must underlie all discourse concerning matters so serious as religion. It affects people like John Loftus, who has some interesting ideas, but invariably ruins the possibility of serious discourse with him by propagandistic tactics. A kind of atheist fanaticism is brewing, which makes undermines the very process which makes atheist-theist dialogue at all rewarding.  

I suspect he is probably correct that certain tactics do “ruin the possibility of serious discourse,” which is exactly why I have suggested that everyone examine what their goals how and then figure out the best way to achieve those goals.


I do not know if I agree with Reppert that “a kind of atheist fanaticism is brewing.” For example, I don’t think the New Atheists are worse than Madalyn Murray O’Hair; in fact, they are almost certainly better than that. More important, though, is that I think it’s an open question whether New Atheists are representative of atheists in general. I am not sure they are. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are representative of a majority of atheists who go to events like the Reason Rally, but in my experience most atheists are not “card-carrying atheists” who join atheist organizations and go to conferences.

Of course, since I am an atheist, I recognize that my assessment of the “brewing atheist fanaticism” risk may be very different from Reppert’s.

No, no, no, no, no, heavens no. This is a poison pill that is going to effectively wipe out serious and interesting exchange on religious subjects. It means that I can try to persuade you to believe as I do, and since my arguments are sooooo good, if you don’t buy them, then we have to use ridicule tactics on you. Defenders of each side have to do their best to make their case, it may persuade some, but not everyone, but that’s what argumentation is for. As Lewis says, argument has a life of its own, you follow the argument where it leads; there are aspects of the belief decision process that we may not be able to put on the table, and so we do our best and leave it at that. If we are Christians, we leave the rest in the hands of the Holy Spirit. If we engage in rational discourse concerning these matters of profound significance existentially, we make a commitment to the process of following the argument where it leads.

 I agree, which is why it is difficult for me to imagine scenarios where I, for one, would engage in mockery or ridicule of theistic beliefs. If I did, I would do it with the full awareness that I was ending the possibility of genuine dialogue.

It is, for example, very easy to come up with a description of evolution that makes it look stupid. I’ve heard it a million times. If I do that, and then let out a horse laugh, have I made an argument against evolution? Of course not. Distinguishing real absurdity from the appearance of absurdity generated by a tendentious description is part of what we need to do to learn how to think. Dawkins and those that follow him are so opposed to religion that getting peopel to reject religion is more important than being faithful to the process of rational discourse. The end justifies the means, even if that means isn’t really a rational process at all. Some of his statements make him sound like a schoolyard bully who will do anything to get what he wants, in this case, to turn people into atheists.

I think it is easy to show that if your goal is to get more people to become atheists, then ridicule and mockery is not the most effective way to achieve that goal. At least, that is the approach I have tried to take. Again, this is why I try to get people to think about what their goals are. I haven’t specifically talked about this with Dawkins, so I don’t claim to know what his response would be. It’s possible (though I think unlikely) that he would say that ridicule and mockery are his ends, not his means. A more likely explanation is that he either (a) believes ridicule and mockery are or can be an effective way to get people to reject religion, or (b) he has another goal and ridicule and mockery are a means to that ‘other’ end.

This seems to me to be caused by hatred. I understand the frustration he has experienced as an evolutionary biologist, (I’ve been told that all evolutionary biologists get a lot of hate mail from Christians), but that doesn’t make his tactics acceptable.

Is it caused by hatred? It could be. I don’t know. I do agree with Reppert that ridicule and mockery can often be quite rude.

Not only that, but when he calls raising a child in a religion child abuse and compares it to sexual abuse, he is implying that the government should have the right to interfere with this process, as the government does interfere when there is sexual abuse. This is something that undermines something that previous atheists have attempted to defend, and that is the separation of church and state.

I hadn’t even thought of it that way before, but I see Reppert’s point. I think calling “raising a child in a religion child abuse” is over the top. As for the idea that it is comparable to (or even worse than) sexual abuse, I think that’s absurd. One wonders if there are any atheists who’ve experienced sexual abuse who would agree with Dawkins on that point.

I don’t have any comments on the rest of his post. I do want to close with one final comment, which is that I think both theists and atheists have contributed to the situation. Bad behavior by some theists does not justify bad behavior by atheists. And I do think it’s appropriate to mention bad behavior by theists, as a reminder that both sides have contributed to the situation. I’ve complained about this before, but see here and here for examples. I’m also inclined to include the institutional bigotry of the Boy Scouts of America against atheists as another example: where is the outcry from theists against the BSA’s policy of discrimination against nontheists?

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05799095055208759535 cl

    Nice post. I won't be surprised if you get attacked as an "accommodationist," but hopefully the wisdom of your message will prevail.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    Again, why are we allowed to mock people who claim the Detroit Lions are the greatest team in the NFL, but are not allowed to mock theistic beliefs?

    Why are we allowed to mock people who believe in Tarot cards, but not allowed to mock people who believe Noah had 2 of every animal?

    Why are we allowed to mock people who regard 666 as an unlucky number, but not allowed to mock people who think the Antichrist is coming back soon?

    Why the double standard?

    What religious discourse do you want?

    If somebody claims their priest can literally turn some bread and some wine into flesh and blood, but it will look exactly like bread and wine and taste and act just like bread and wine, what do you want to say to them?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    REPPERT
    It is, for example, very easy to come up with a description of evolution that makes it look stupid. I've heard it a million times.

    CARR
    Is this the bargain Victor wants?

    In return for theists ceasing to tell lies about evolution, he wants the New Atheists to stop telling the truth about what religious people believe?

    Dawkins mocks the Christian god of the Old Testament as follows :- 'The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.'

    Is Victor now demanding Dawkins stop describing the Old Testament god they way it is?

    What 'mockery' by Dawkins does Victor have in mind?

    He has now resorted to claiming it is not abuse to tell children they will burn in Hell unless they accept Jesus as their Saviour.

    But it is child abuse to put the fear of God into children.

    It is child abuse to get children to sing songs about how no homos are getting to Heaven.

    It is child abuse to get children to regard Proddies as 'the other side.'

    Sorry, Victor, but you will have to come up with something better…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    LOWDER
    One wonders if there are any atheists who've experienced sexual abuse who would agree with Dawkins on that point.

    CARR
    You don't have to wonder much longer Child Abuse

    Sexual abuse is often mental abuse as well, as the abuser indoctrinates in the mind of the child that the child (or its parents) will get into trouble if activities are made public.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    I couldn't agree more with your preamble, Jeff. I'll stick with the atheism I see at philosophy of religion conferences (mutual respect, courtesy, and charity). I'm disheartened by the tone of a lot of atheists. Anyone who claims the reasoned arguments of folks like Plantinga, (the late) Alston, Dean Zimmerman, Swinburne, John Hawthorne, Keith DeRose, Alex Pruss, Trent Dougherty, etc. are irrational and worthy of mockery should not be taken seriously.

    I recently moderated a debate between philosophers Felipe Leon and Bruce Little that I believe models the kind of tone worthy of such a serious debate; I have very little time for the kinds of discussions many (but to be fair, not all) new atheists. We're still editing our debate to post online. I think you'll appreciate it's tone.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Carr:

    Again, why are we allowed to mock people who claim the Detroit Lions are the greatest team in the NFL, but are not allowed to mock theistic beliefs?

    Again, why are we allowed to mock people who claim the Detroit Lions are the greatest team in the NFL, but are not allowed to mock theistic beliefs?

    Why are we allowed to mock people who believe in Tarot cards, but not allowed to mock people who believe Noah had 2 of every animal?

    Why are we allowed to mock people who regard 666 as an unlucky number, but not allowed to mock people who think the Antichrist is coming back soon?

    Why the double standard?

    At the risk of being too literal, I think the word "allowed" is the wrong word to use. Perhaps what you mean to ask, "Why is one thing bad/rude/counterproductive/etc., while the other is not?"

    I'll answer that question. I think all of the beliefs you mention are silly. (And I have no doubt that people who hold those beliefs think some of my positions are silly.) But I don't mock any of them. What's the point? What goal are you trying to achieve through mockery?

    What religious discourse do you want?

    If somebody claims their priest can literally turn some bread and some wine into flesh and blood, but it will look exactly like bread and wine and taste and act just like bread and wine, what do you want to say to them?

    I don't know if I would say anything. Again, what would be the point? I don't normally derive pleasure from intentionally trying to make other people look stupid. (I have had my immature moments, but it's not something I'm proud of.) I don't think there is any benefit to being adversarial, just for the sake of being adversarial. If I were to say anything, it would be because I wanted to understand why they believe that, I wanted to change their mind, or both.

    If I wanted to understand why they believe that, I would just ask them directly, "Why do you believe that?"

    If I wanted to persuade them to change their mind, I might ask something like this. "For the sake of argument, I'll assume that God exists and resurrected Jesus from the dead. Even with those assumptions, what reason is there to believe that he would miraculously transform bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ? Is there any reason other than Catholic church tradition?" I would then listen to what they had to say and take it from there.

    On a related subject, this post has just inspired the following question in my mind: "Can a person who encourages treating beliefs they reject with ridicule and mockery be a freethinker?"

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    Jeffery,

    This is an interesting matter to me, and from what I've read, I'm kind of halfway here.

    I think mockery is usually not a good tactic, and sometimes not even morally acceptable, but that depends on the circumstances.
    On the other hand, I tend to think a number of beliefs are not only mistaken, but irrational if still held after given consideration to them, and that includes the belief that Catholicism is true.

    Now, you mentioned that you don't believe theistic belief is irrational, but I do not know whether you extend that to specific religions, like Catholicism (the target of Dawkins' mockery in the example) is.
    In any case, I think the following scenario is relevant to the matter of when religious beliefs are rational, and also the consequences which might (or might not) justify mockery in some cases.

    For instance, let's suppose that Joe believes that Catholicism is true, and even after considering arguments for or against, for years, they remain believers.
    That includes belief in the transubstantiation, and that the Pope is infallible on matters of faith and morals under some conditions, etc. That also includes the belief that the RCC's moral teachings are to be followed, at least under some conditions, etc.

    But let's consider the following scenario:

    Based on his Catholic beliefs, Joe claims that same-sex sex, and abortion are always immoral, and moreover, that the government has a moral obligation (official position of the RCC) to ban abortion, and not to confuse matters calling some immoral same-sex unions 'marriage'.

    So, he both argues for those moral claims (which he considers to be true), and for the passing of the corresponding legislation.

    If there is nothing irrational in Joe's position, then his moral beliefs on the matter are justified. But if his moral beliefs on the matter are justified, then it seems to me it's not the case that he shouldn't behave as he does (that's a moral 'should').

    If so, it seems it's not the case that he shouldn't try to ban same-sex marriage (or to keep it banned) and spread the belief that it's not even marriage, or that he shouldn't try to ban abortion, or to keep it banned (e.g., in nearly all of Latin America), or publicly claim that abortion is murder and allowing abortion is comparable to the Holocaust, etc.

    What's your take on this matter, and related ones?

    Generally speaking, the problem I see is that if those moral beliefs are all held rationally, it's difficult to see why those people should not behave in such a manner (i.e., it's difficult to see what's immoral about their behavior).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Angra — I haven't really thought before about whether I consider belief in Catholicism, specifically, to be irrational.

    One thing that comes to mind is rationality, like epistemic probability, can vary from person to person and from time to time. So I don't think I am prepared to say that Catholic belief, as such, is irrational or rational. It depends upon a person's individual epistemic circumstances.

    With that said, part of the reason I am willing to grant that theistic belief could be rational is the possibility of veridical religious experiences. If someone believes that God exists on the basis of religious experience, I am willing to grant that could make their belief rational for them (as perceptual or non-propositional evidence) although it has no evidential value for others (as propositional evidence).

    I don't know if any Catholics claim to have religious experiences which specifically confirm the doctrine of transsubstantiation for them. My guess it that very few, if any, Catholics would claim that, but I really don't know. If they did claim to have such an experience, I might be willing to regard their belief as rational for that person. If not, then I would need to understand what other reasons they had.

    The relevance to mockery and ridicule is this: if I think a person is or even very well could be rational for holding a belief, that seems like a good reason for NOT mocking or ridiculing that belief. If, on the other hand, I think they are irrational in holding a belief, then it might be okay, but, again, it goes back to my goals.

    To use a non-theological example: in college, I once did odd jobs for an elderly woman. She used to tell me the strangest conspiracy theories. I eventually came to learn that she was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic suffering from organic brain decomposition. Her conspiracy theories were literally crazy. Given her schizophrenia, it's actually an interesting question whether her beliefs were rational for her at that time. Let's assume they were irrational for her. She used to tell me stories to try to persuade me that they were true. She would say things like, "They haven't gotten to you yet, so maybe you can help me." Despite her trying to convince me, it never once occurred to me to ridicule or mock her. Instead, I felt sorry for her and tried to get her help.

    (Note to theists who are reading this: I am not in any way comparing your belief to schizophrenia. I am using an extreme example to make the point that if someone really is irrational for holding a belief, it's not obvious that ridicule or mockery is appropriate behavior.)

    Or to use a theological example. Consider various naturalistic explanations for why so many people believe in God. Let's say Tom is an atheist who explains the pervasiveness of theistic belief by appealing to the HAAD (Hyper Active Agency Detector) theory. Let's further assume that Joe is irrational in believing Catholicism is true. Should Tom mock and ridicule Joe's 'irrational' Catholic beliefs? No. If Joe's 'irrational' beliefs are due to HAAD, I don't see how ridicule and mockery accomplish anything productive. In fact, such tactics seem downright cruel.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408364244593519914 Matt DeStefano

    Jeffery,

    In a thread over at Reppert's blog you said:

    "For example, I probably would mock someone's belief in a flat earth, since I think that belief is irrational for most people (barring some very limited exceptions)."

    Now, in response to Carr's question about the dividing line between types of beliefs you say:

    I'll answer that question. I think all of the beliefs you mention are silly. (And I have no doubt that people who hold those beliefs think some of my positions are silly.) But I don't mock any of them. What's the point? What goal are you trying to achieve through mockery?

    I understand that you would eschew mockery in the form of rational, reasoned argumentation. I think we can all agree there. But, if you've read the transcript of his speech, Dawkins isn't encouraging mockery in substitute of rational argumentation. He's not, as Reppert keeps repeating, saying that mockery is equivalent to argumentation.

    I think it's naive to think that mockery can't be an effective means of keeping people from belief gridlock: I've mentioned in threads over there the Book of Mormon Broadway play, Swift's a Modest Proposal, and one can think of many other juvenalian satirical works that have stirred controversy.

    Is Swift no longer a free thinker, since he has resorted to mockery?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi Matt — Good questions. I did read the transcript of Dawkins's speech. I'm inclined to agree with you that Dawkins is not saying that mockery is equivalent to rational argumentation. On the other hand, Dawkins did explicitly encourage mockery in at least some cases. What wasn't clear to me was the parameters around when Dawkins would and would not encourage mockery, and what his motivations are. For example, if a Catholic says they believe in transsubstantiation, why does Dawkins want to mock that belief? What is his goal?

    I also agree with you that mockery can serve as a sort of "wake up call" which causes them to re-examine beliefs. The danger, of course, is that mockery can also cause a person to become even more entrenched in their position. (It would be an interesting psychological study to measure the distribution of responses to having one's beliefs mocked.)

    And, of course, there is the not insignificant issue that mockery is rude. If many people have the belief (I would call it prejudice) that atheists are less moral than theists, then it seems to me irrational, from a public relations perspective, to encourage in-your-face, rude (i.e., immoral) behavior. Maybe that strategy is the idea we atheists should focus on mocking and ridiculing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04982524614308121228 Mark Jones

    Jeffrey Jay Lowder

    With that said, part of the reason I am willing to grant that theistic belief could be rational is the possibility of veridical religious experiences. If someone believes that God exists on the basis of religious experience, I am willing to grant that could make their belief rational for them (as perceptual or non-propositional evidence) although it has no evidential value for others (as propositional evidence).

    The relevance to mockery and ridicule is this: if I think a person is or even very well could be rational for holding a belief, that seems like a good reason for NOT mocking or ridiculing that belief. If, on the other hand, I think they are irrational in holding a belief, then it might be okay, but, again, it goes back to my goals.

    These two statements set up the possibility of a rather uncomfortable scenario, don't they?

    I think it's true that a person could reasonably hold a belief that is in fact wrong. Incomplete evidence inevitably results in some incorrect beliefs, for example. If religious experiences are also granted 'evidence' status, which I admit many (and all theists, presumably) do, that can result in some pretty ridiculous beliefs, viewed from the outside.

    So, given that we have allowed someone can reasonably believe ridiculous things if we allow personal revelation (and without), would you seek to persuade them out of such a belief? If someone said they were convinced by an infallible god to sacrifice their child, since you allow that this might be a veridical religious experience, you wouldn't ridicule it. If, as you say, they are being reasonable, and you agree with them that they are being reasonable, you are not in a position to reason with them either, are you? If they are not open to objective evidence trumping their religious experience, there's nothing you can do to dissuade them.

    In such a circumstance, you appear to be resigned to standing by while they execute their duty, and to you and the executioner, they are acting reasonably. Observing that the executioner values different epistemological foundations to myself, I might resort to ridicule, and you would presumably caution me against that.

    Now, I suppose this is an extreme example, and maybe you would note that some beliefs are beyond the Pale (like flat earthism) but then we are back to arguing not that we should not ridicule religious beliefs at all, but about which beliefs are worthy of ridicule and which are not. That beliefs arise from religious experience would then be irrelevant to this distinction.

    I do think an explanation is needed to explain why some think religious beliefs should be set apart from other beliefs, in a padded box immune from ridicule. This is not to say that constant ridicule is the order of the day; it's just to observe that there is nothing special about religious beliefs compared to other beliefs that justifies their exemption from ridicule.

    On a related subject, this post has just inspired the following question in my mind: "Can a person who encourages treating beliefs they reject with ridicule and mockery be a freethinker?"

    I expect you realised the answer after just a few seconds reflection on centuries of satire. Personally, I'm not prepared to contemplate the notion that Horace and Juvenal, Moliere and Voltaire, Swift and Hogarth, Dickens and Wilde, Dorothy Parker and Peter Cook, are anything but fairly free thinkers. Or perhaps you don't think practitioners of ridicule are encouraging ridicule? Well, they aren't discouraging it by engaging in it so expertly, I don't think.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    Jeffery,

    I was talking about Catholicism after given consideration to them. A general case is a lot harder to assess.

    But for example, let's take the case of Joe I mentioned before:
    If he bases the moral beliefs in question on his belief that Catholicism is true plus a proper assessment that Catholicism supports them, then if his belief that Catholicism is true is justified, then the aforementioned moral beliefs would be justified as well.

    Regarding religious experiences, I think we may disagree on the matter, but to be sure I'd need some more details about what experiences and what beliefs we're talking about. For instance, by 'God', do you mean something like "an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect being, creator of all other beings", or something else?

    As for Catholics and religious experiences, a Catholic could try to use religious experiences to justify the belief that Catholicism is the correct religion, and then – given that – it seems to me transubstantiation follows. If religious experiences sometimes justify Catholicism, then it seems to me that transubstantiation would be justified as well if the believer derives it from Catholicism. But then, they would appear to me to justify Joe's moral beliefs as well, and I think they're not justified.


    The relevance to mockery and ridicule is this: if I think a person is or even very well could be rational for holding a belief, that seems like a good reason for NOT mocking or ridiculing that belief. If, on the other hand, I think they are irrational in holding a belief, then it might be okay, but, again, it goes back to my goals.

    In that case, a question is whether there is a good reason to think someone is or very well could be rationally holding the belief that the transubstantiation is true.

    If that person has considered the matter of whether Catholicism is true and remains convinced that it is, then if said belief is justified so would be belief in the transubstantiation. But then again, so would be Joe's moral beliefs. I do not think they are.

    Granted, that does not address potential alternative reasons for why a Catholic would believe in the transubstantiation after reflection, but frankly, I can't think of any good reason to believe so.
    Moreover, I do not think that Dawkins focuses on transubstantiation because of any salient feature of that belief, other than to get people to think about it for a moment and conclude that the doctrine is false. Essentially, his target is Catholicism. The transubstantiation is just one of his tactical choices, as are some other Catholic beliefs.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    Jeffery, regarding your non-theological example, I do not think it's generally acceptable to mock someone who has schizophrenia, and I would not have mocked her, either. I completely agree with you on that.
    But on the other hand, and regardless of whether she was being irrational, it seems to me that there are some differences between her and nearly all Catholics, such as:

    1) In nearly all cases, Catholics are not schizophrenic. Some mental illnesses may excuse those who suffer them, but they do not have any of them.

    2) Catholics tend to spread their beliefs. She did not spread hers.

    3) She did not have the power to do any non-negligible damage by voting (I'm not sure she voted, but there was only one of them).

    Combined, those differences may well be relevant to the matter of mockery on many circumstances.

    I do agree, however, that if someone is really irrational in holding a belief, it's not obvious that mockery or ridicule are appropriate behaviors. In fact, I do not think that those are always, or even nearly always, usually, etc., appropriate behavior. I'm not sure how often they're appropriate.

    More precisely, when it comes to whether mocking a belief is justified, at least the following issues are at least often relevant:

    a) Whether the belief is held irrationally, and whether it promotes irrational beliefs in others.

    b) Whether that belief is a (or supports) false moral beliefs, and whether it promotes similar beliefs in others.

    If both a) and b) are true, then it's still an issue of whether mockery is an effective tactic to reduce the incidence of such beliefs, what the odds of negative consequences of that mockery are, etc. I wouldn't say mockery is always appropriate in those cases, but I wouldn't say that it never or almost never is, either. On the other hand, only very unusual hypothetical scenarios could justify mocking a rationally held belief (e.g., if someone is threatening to shoot me if I don't, etc.).

    So, in the end, I think that assessment of the rationality of a belief is at least often a relevant consideration when it comes to assessing whether mockery is justified (or ridicule, etc.).

    As for your theological example, you're using 'Catholic' in quotations; I'm not sure whether you're implying that Joe's Catholic beliefs are not irrational. Please elaborate.
    In any case, I would say that HAAD alone at most may cause belief in non-existent agents, but a lot more is required to get from that to 'Catholicism is true', so we know there are plenty of other causes.

    If we can tell that Joe's belief that Catholicism is true is irrational, then there are a number of issues, such as:

    4) Whether mocking them would likely be effective in persuading Joe to leave them.

    5) Whether mocking them would likely be effective in persuading others to leave them.

    6) Whether mocking them would be effective in preventing others from being confused later, after they've concluded that Joe's beliefs are just absurd.

    7) Whether there is a course of action that is more likely to reduce the incidence of such beliefs, with less negative consequences.

    And so on.

    Personally, I think in most cases ridiculing someone face to fact is not a good idea. But it's a matter of circumstances, and as I mentioned, I think the issue of rationality of some religious beliefs (and not just generic theism) is one of the issues at the heart of these matters.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Mark Jones said

    So, given that we have allowed someone can reasonably believe ridiculous things if we allow personal revelation (and without), would you seek to persuade them out of such a belief? If someone said they were convinced by an infallible god to sacrifice their child, since you allow that this might be a veridical religious experience, you wouldn't ridicule it. If, as you say, they are being reasonable, and you agree with them that they are being reasonable, you are not in a position to reason with them either, are you? If they are not open to objective evidence trumping their religious experience, there's nothing you can do to dissuade them.

    In such a circumstance, you appear to be resigned to standing by while they execute their duty, and to you and the executioner, they are acting reasonably. Observing that the executioner values different epistemological foundations to myself, I might resort to ridicule, and you would presumably caution me against that.

    No, I think you've misunderstood me. Again, I think the rationality of a belief can vary from person to person and from time to time. What would be an irrational, even insane, belief for 99.9% of us could be a rational belief for someone else.

    Let's take your example. If a person has a religious experience in which they think God has asked them to "sacrifice their child" (Abraham and Isaac come to mind), would that belief be rational for that person? The answer is it depends on whether they have any reasons to think their experience is delusory. But let's put that to the side.

    Let's assume it is a rational belief for them. It's still an irrational belief for the rest of us (who haven't had the experience).

    Much more important, it's also a dangerous belief; if the person acts on that belief, they will literally murder a child. I wouldn't respond to that with mockery and ridicule. I would call the police, who I would expect to respond with force. Just because I think another person happens to rationally hold a false belief doesn't mean I have to be completely passive about it. Again, it goes back to one's goals. In your example, my goal would be to protect the child from being killed.

    Now, I suppose this is an extreme example, and maybe you would note that some beliefs are beyond the Pale (like flat earthism) but then we are back to arguing not that we should not ridicule religious beliefs at all, but about which beliefs are worthy of ridicule and which are not. That beliefs arise from religious experience would then be irrelevant to this distinction.

    I do think an explanation is needed to explain why some think religious beliefs should be set apart from other beliefs, in a padded box immune from ridicule. This is not to say that constant ridicule is the order of the day; it's just to observe that there is nothing special about religious beliefs compared to other beliefs that justifies their exemption from ridicule.

    I agree with you that "there is nothing special about religious beliefs compared to other beliefs that justifies their exemption from ridicule." I don't believe I've written anything to the contrary. My reluctance to ridicule religious beliefs stems from my reluctance to ridicule beliefs in general; again, it goes back to one's goals.

    In other words, I'm not saying, "You probably shouldn't ridicule religious beliefs because religious beliefs are special." Rather, I'm saying, "If your goals are to persuade others to change or give up their religious beliefs, you may want to think twice about that. Yes, the ridicule approach could work, but it could also backfire, doing more harm than good. What if there is another way to persuade others that is less risky?"

    Oh, and yes, I decided the answer to my question was "yes."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16886474794200567572 Rike

    In my opinion, the catholic believers are the ones who do the most ridiculing of catholicism. Not too long ago, I came across an article about a survey (http://nineteensixty-four.blogspot.com/2010/10/christian-belief-in-and-knowledge-of.html) that shows that many catholics do not even know about transubstantiation. They believe that the bread and wine are a symbol of christ's body and blood, but they call themselves "catholics" (and practice birth control on the side, too). Having been raised catholic myself, I am absolutely unable to take such (and similar) catholics serious. There is almost no other choice but to mock! How could you have a reasonable discussion with someone like that about their religion?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    LOWDER
    What's the point? What goal are you trying to achieve through mockery?

    CARR
    The goal of showing that religious claims are similar to every other claim in the world – ie that they can be mocked, just like every other belief.

    Of course, 'mockery' is Christian code-word for 'quoting'.

    Or perhaps 'mockery' is just another word for expressing astonishment that somebody believes such a thing.

    Here is the most famous bit of atheist 'mockery'. What on earth is wrong with these statements?

    Why is it counter-productive to mock Christianity as follows -

    Christianity 969 up, 559 down
    The belief that a cosmic Jewish zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.. which only existed metaphorically.

    Why is is counter-productive to say such things?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    'I've mentioned in threads over there the Book of Mormon Broadway play, Swift's a Modest Proposal, and one can think of many other juvenalian satirical works that have stirred controversy.'

    CARR
    Of course.

    Why is religious belief immune to ribbing?

    Is it because religious people have no sense of humour and cannot laugh at themselves?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    Perhaps this is just a cultural thing.

    I live in a country where programmes like 'Father Ted' can be made and we don't have the equivalent of the Repperts over here writing about how such mockery is but a short step to installing guillotines.

    Perhaps Dawkins forgot he was no longer in a country where programmes like 'Father Ted' are (or were) some of the top rated programmes on TV.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04982524614308121228 Mark Jones

    JJL

    Thanks for the response and the clarification.

    No, I think you've misunderstood me. Again, I think the rationality of a belief can vary from person to person and from time to time. What would be an irrational, even insane, belief for 99.9% of us could be a rational belief for someone else.

    Let's take your example. If a person has a religious experience in which they think God has asked them to "sacrifice their child" (Abraham and Isaac come to mind), would that belief be rational for that person? The answer is it depends on whether they have any reasons to think their experience is delusory. But let's put that to the side.

    Sorry, I was unclear in my example since this isn't quite addressing the point I was making, which is about how you would try to change such a person's mind. I'm thinking you would not have a strategy. I understand that you would no doubt think the child sacrifice is irrational, but you would have to agree with the believer that they are acting rationally (to them) if they genuinely believed they had had a religious experience.

    That is the consequence of your statement:

    With that said, part of the reason I am willing to grant that theistic belief could be rational is the possibility of veridical religious experiences. If someone believes that God exists on the basis of religious experience, I am willing to grant that could make their belief rational for them (as perceptual or non-propositional evidence) although it has no evidential value for others (as propositional evidence).

    So apologies if I gave the impression you would think the belief itself was rational. Of course you wouldn't, but consider how you would dissuade such a person. I could say they are being irrational; you presumably wouldn't, if you are consistent in allowing someone to determine the genuineness of any religious experience.

    But I'm not sure you are being consistent, since you say, to repeat:

    The answer is it depends on whether they have any reasons to think their experience is delusory. But let's put that to the side.

    You are suggesting to someone who you think might have had a genuine religious experience that they could be delusional? That is no more than Dawkins is suggesting in speeches and a book title, is it, for which he has been accused of unnecessarily ridiculing people? And ridicule would be the charge against you, I suspect, should you suggest such a thing.

    But to refer back to your original statement, whether or not the belief is delusional is irrelevant, because they would still be rational in their belief, if they thought it was a genuine religious experience. That's all it takes for you to eschew ridicule, if I understand the statements I quoted correctly.

    Much more important, it's also a dangerous belief; if the person acts on that belief, they will literally murder a child. I wouldn't respond to that with mockery and ridicule. I would call the police, who I would expect to respond with force. Just because I think another person happens to rationally hold a false belief doesn't mean I have to be completely passive about it. Again, it goes back to one's goals. In your example, my goal would be to protect the child from being killed.

    Yes, of course, I wasn't clear in my example. I'm sure you would act to stop the executioner, just as I would not just ridicule them. But it's not the thrust of my point, which is to try to determine the threshold for ridicule. Imagine you are simply communicating with the believer over the internet and don't know where they are. I might also be conversing with them and ridiculing their beliefs in an attempt to stop them acting on them. Would you tell me that ridicule was a poor tactic in the circumstances? Even if it was, I'm inclined to think it's better than doing nothing! I hope you see my point.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04982524614308121228 Mark Jones

    contd…

    I agree with you that "there is nothing special about religious beliefs compared to other beliefs that justifies their exemption from ridicule." I don't believe I've written anything to the contrary. My reluctance to ridicule religious beliefs stems from my reluctance to ridicule beliefs in general; again, it goes back to one's goals.

    Yes, fair enough, although I didn't say that you wrote that; I was asking why 'some think' that. But granted, there is no need for you to defend a view you don't hold!

    Yes, the ridicule approach could work, but it could also backfire, doing more harm than good.

    That, I think, is a different question, a valid one about tactics. But your position is that you would not ridicule someone's beliefs, isn't it ("if I think a person is or even very well could be rational for holding a belief, that seems like a good reason for NOT mocking or ridiculing that belief")? Yet above you concede that such an approach could work? Why would you eschew ridicule, then, if it could achieve your goals, which is what I assume you mean by 'the ridicule approach could work'?

    What if there is another way to persuade others that is less risky?"

    Quite, but the position of all the new atheists I've read is not to eschew other ways to persuade others; they simply don't exclude ridicule from their toolbox.

    Oh, and yes, I decided the answer to my question was "yes."

    Glad to hear it!

    Thanks again for the response.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05645132954231868592 BenYachov

    @Jeff

    >I'm also inclined to include the institutional bigotry of the Boy Scouts of America against atheists as another example: where is the outcry from theists against the BSA's policy of discrimination against nontheists?

    This is a very good post over all Jeff. Any Atheist who can figure out the Ultimate Boeing 747 argument is bogus is alright in my book. That later makes you intellectually the equivolent of the Theist who figures out the "@nd Law of thermodynamics refutes evolution" arguing is equally bullshit.

    Of course I must take issue with the above. The Boys Scouts are a private organization who minimally believe as an organization that Theism is good. There is no reason why one could not found an Atheist Scouts group that believes Atheism is good and denies membership to Theists. Not all "discrimination" is wrong, unjust, or unreasonable. If all "discriminaton" was wrong then logically we could force the REASON RALLY people to accept Theistic Speakers or the next time the Pope comes to America to preach a sermon make him give equal time to Dawkins. In short no!

    Public institutions are one thing but private ones are sacrosanct in their right to dictate their own message and who they wish to associate with. Otherwise a guy who is going to vote for Romeny can force his way into the chairmanship of the local "Re-ellect President Obama" concern.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    Jeffery,

    You keep discussing 'goals' in relation to rational argument vs. mockery, and you note that mockery can cause people to become more entrenched in their beliefs. Unfortunately, facts, which one would generally assume are necessary to rational argument, also cause people to become entrenched in their beliefs; see:

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/064786861r21m257/fulltext.html

    'Belief' itself appears to be a special animal, not solely the product of rational analysis and argumentation; so rational argumentation alone cannot, it seems to me, be the sole method for changing beliefs – my point being that the mocker and the rational arguer can both have the *same exact goal*: to change belief. There is anecdotal evidence one can see on various deconversion sites (including but not limited to Dawkins'), in which some people specifically mention ridicule as being one of the factors in their changed beliefs. For some people, mockery can force an ensuing rational investigation into their beliefs, while others will, of course, entrench or maintain their belief (and perhaps 'entrenchment' is itself a form of irrationality, no matter the reason for it).

    So, given the above, mustn't we rationally conclude that mockery should be accepted as a necessary form of argumentation (a form of rhetoric, say), however much we might be personally against it?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17161621090445639028 Aragorn

    I really don't see anything wrong with using mockery as a way to push a meme. So long as the mockery is justified, why not? It's correct, it's effective to an extent and it brings the issues in stark relief. It's not as precise, but that's what we're here for. I think the only reason why theists object is that it's quite effective.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi Ben — Regarding the BSA, please see my latest blog post:

    http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2012/06/where-is-outcry-from-theists-against.html

    Jeff

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    Wes says that "[a]nyone who claims the reasoned arguments of folks like Plantinga, (the late) Alston, Dean Zimmerman, Swinburne, John Hawthorne, Keith DeRose, Alex Pruss, Trent Dougherty, etc. are irrational and worthy of mockery should not be taken seriously."

    On the contrary, it is precisely because intelligent, fair-minded, philosophically inclined atheists continue to hold such figures up as shields to deflect criticism of what actual believers actually believe that their risible arguments need to be mocked in even stronger terms. Who is really a more appropriate target of our opprobrium: dime a dozen internet miscreants like Ilion and Rank Sophist, or sophisticated, educated god-mongers who ought to know better?

    Here is another angle playing off the metaphor of culture as a conflict or war. In war, uniformed foot soldiers captured on the battlefield are protected by international agreements dictating at least some standards of compassion. But treason is a hanging offense. See the wonderfully lucid comments by poster 'Philip' in this older thread for an argument that theistic philosophers of religion are in some fundamental sense traitors to Philosophy itself. Such persons trot out toy arguments, feeble simulacra of genuine religious belief — think the Cosmological or Ontological arguments for "god". The believer and the nonbeliever can then engage in a kind of harmless game, like checkers or backgammon, trading a finite number of allowable moves, with no genuine consequence to victory when the loser can simply fold up the board and return the next day to start the process over again.

    This of course, only applies to their "best" philosophical arguments. There remain any number of arguments made by the philosophical double-agents Wes lists which are, in fact, objectively demanding of mockery on their own terms. The Trilemma and the EAAN, for example, are beyond the pale of what even the most magnanimous intellectual charity can demand of us.

    Why am I obligated to "respect" the scientifically and morally preposterous beliefs of professional philosophers on the hypothesis that "they might get their feelings hurt" while they are at the same time allowed to circulate a petition to the APA demanding the right to institutionally disrespect and disenfranchise my homosexual friends? That question is rhetorical.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hiero5ant said…

    On the contrary, it is precisely because intelligent, fair-minded, philosophically inclined atheists continue to hold such figures up as shields to deflect criticism of what actual believers actually believe that their risible arguments need to be mocked in even stronger terms.

    Huh? You lost me at this point: "to hold such figures up as shields to deflect criticism of what actual believers believe…" Where did Wes do that? As I read him, Wes said that the arguments of the Christian philosophers he listed do not deserve to be mocked or ridiculed. There is a big difference between that and saying "what actual believers believe should not be criticized." First, as you rightly point out, there's a difference between the arguments used by Christian philosophers and the arguments used by the average Christian on the street. Second, there is a difference between ridicule and criticism.

    The Trilemma and the EAAN, for example, are beyond the pale of what even the most magnanimous intellectual charity can demand of us.

    The EAAN does not deserve to be placed in the same category as the Trilemma, IMO. In fact, with all due respect, I would have to question how well someone understands the EAAN, if they seriously make such a comparison.

    Why am I obligated to "respect" the scientifically and morally preposterous beliefs of professional philosophers on the hypothesis that "they might get their feelings hurt" while they are at the same time allowed to circulate a petition to the APA demanding the right to institutionally disrespect and disenfranchise my homosexual friends? That question is rhetorical.

    I'll answer anyway.

    1. Two wrongs don't make a right.
    2. Forget about concepts of obligation. Do a risk-reward analysis. You have several alternatives for responding to such professional philosophers. What is your goal in respond to them? If it is persuasion, which alternative is most likely to achieve that goal? Yes, mockery might or could persuade them, but is that the most probable outcome? If it is something else, then, again, which alternative is most likely to achieve that other goal?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Chris wrote:

    So, given the above, mustn't we rationally conclude that mockery should be accepted as a necessary form of argumentation (a form of rhetoric, say), however much we might be personally against it?

    Chris, that is the best answer I've yet seen for justifying the use of mockery. Well done.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    Once again, Carr is able to strip away the distractions and see the heart of the matter. People who cannot stand to be made fun of ipso facto the persons we are obligated to mock and ridicule.

    Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek invite us to laugh at them on their own terms, and we can take them or leave them. But Malvolio – rigid, joyless, puritanical prude Malvolio – demands to be brought low by mockery in the same way a blank canvas demands a splash of paint.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09695856427586801682 HyperEntity111

    Dawkins wants to mock Carholicism because he thinks it is unsupported by evidence but Dawkins himself is vigorous advocate of faith based thinking. Dawkins & Myers et al insist that they atheists do not need to examine the arguments in favour of theism before dismissing it and that this is a rational position yet they demand that theists provide evidence for beliefs. And they insist that anyone who does not accept this absurd epistemology is not merely wrong but mentally ill.

    It is quite amusing to see posters here attempt to defend this kind of thinking by equating it with mocking comedy. Dawkins has previously stated that young people who do not believe in evolution should be prevented from going to university. Since he also thinks that the truth of atheism is more obvious than that of evolution I would be surprised if he also thought that the only people who should not be denied access to higher education are atheists. According to a poll I once saw many Americans think that atheists are about as trustworthy as rapists and peadophiles. But the New Atheists are quite adamant that raising your child in your religion is worse than peadophilia (Dawkins) and that converting the planet's population to atheism is preferable to the elimination of rape because religion is worse than rape (Harris). Consequently it seems that the majority of the planet's population are worse than rapists and peadophiles. It also seems that they are mentally ill because they do not subscribe Dawkins' strange views on the nature of rationality.

    Most normal people would regard the above statements as appalling whether they are motivated by a hatred of your skin colour, sexual orientation or religious belief (or lack of it). But since a number of commentators here appear to believe that such statements are no more than jovial 'mocking' and 'comedy' it is unclear to me why they are worried that many Ameticans see them as equivalent to rapists or that the Boy Scouts discriminate against them. Surely these attitudes also express comedy rather than bigotry?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09695856427586801682 HyperEntity111

    Dawkins wants to mock Catholicism because he thinks it is unsupported by evidence…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    Huh? You lost me at this point: "to hold such figures up as shields to deflect criticism of what actual believers believe…" Where did Wes do that?

    In the very post to which I responded. There is 1) a criticism of an obvious, paradigmatic case of rank superstition, which is 2) deflected with the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger sigh that the all the "worthwhile" debate is going on in philosophy departments where it is taboo to even raise the question of whether one's interlocutors really believe some of the silly things they claim to believe.

    He wants to shun the travails of the workaday world, adopt the monkish tonsure and habit, and retreat to the ivory tower where arguments are ritualized exchanges of consequence-free formalisms where no one ever has to worry about getting their feelings hurt.

    If changing the subject to avoid acknowledging that the target of a criticism has been accurately described by that criticism is not deflection, I don't know what is.

    As I read him, Wes said that the arguments of the Christian philosophers he listed do not deserve to be mocked or ridiculed. There is a big difference between that and saying "what actual believers believe should not be criticized." First, as you rightly point out, there's a difference between the arguments used by Christian philosophers and the arguments used by the average Christian on the street. Second, there is a difference between ridicule and criticism.

    Not when the ridicule is expertly done.

    By happiest coincidence, as I was typing this up a podcast I was listening to delivered this wonderful quote from Bergson: "A humorist is a moralist disguised as a scientist, something like an anatomist who practises dissection with the sole object of filling us with disgust; so that humour, in the restricted sense in which we are here regarding the word, is really a transposition from the moral to the scientific."

    The EAAN does not deserve to be placed in the same category as the Trilemma, IMO. In fact, with all due respect, I would have to question how well someone understands the EAAN, if they seriously make such a comparison.

    Didn't we just go through this last week? Didn't I demonstrate that I understand it so well that I can even improve on Plantinga's presentation of it?

    Mutations don't code for individual beliefs, therefore they cannot be the subject of natural selection. Epiphenomenalism about intensional content is ludicrous. Belief structure is holistic, not atomic. "Reliability" is never defined or operationalized. A "prudential designer theory" lacks a proximate mechanism and must itself be arbitrarily fine-tuned to fit the data. etc. etc.

    If any one of these is true, EAAN is DOA. And they're all true.

    1. Two wrongs don't make a right.

    I was unaware that it was morally wrong to ridicule a ridiculous belief. In fact, my understanding is that this is simply good philosophical hygiene.

    2. Forget about concepts of obligation. Do a risk-reward analysis. You have several alternatives for responding to such professional philosophers. What is your goal in respond to them? If it is persuasion, which alternative is most likely to achieve that goal? Yes, mockery might or could persuade them, but is that the most probable outcome? If it is something else, then, again, which alternative is most likely to achieve that other goal?

    But I don't just say "lol ur dumb" and leave it at that, do I? And neither did Dawkins in the quote-mined transcript. They can be elaborate and detailed (as I showed above), or they can be so simple and to the point that they almost don't need to be stated (the only way to turn vegetable protein into animal protein is to digest it).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Is it reasonable to simply dismiss arguments for theism? It would have been 2000 years ago. Is it now?

    Except for occasional postings here I have pretty much retired from doing anything relating to philosophy of religion. The reason? Boredom mostly. You hear that someone has come up with a new spin on the theistic arguments. You check them out, and what do you find? You find the same old sorts of gratuitous assumptions, the same old parading of assertion as argument, the invoking of the same kinds of dubious intuitions, and the same old question begging–even if the same ol' same ol' is dressed up in the "rigorous" clothing of Bayesian confirmation theory or modal logic. Yawn. ZZZZZZZ. Been there. Done that.

    The theistic arguments have been subjected to rigorous, sophisticated, highly corrosive critique by generations of top-notch critics. Given the long,long history of debunkings by Hume, Kant, Mill, D'Holbach, Schopenhauer, Russell, Flew, Matson, Nielsen, Scriven, Hick, Mackie, Martin, Gaskin, Hospers, Le Poidevin, Oppy, Sobel, Gale, Salmon, Drange, Carrier, and Everitt (just to name a very, very few)–one might, like Dawkins, reasonably conclude that the case has been made.

    Of course, defenders of theistic arguments keep churning out the defenses, and they always will. Likewise, there will always be new defenses of creationism, Mormonism, and a return to the gold standard. There are some things some people just can't give up. At some point, though, it is reasonable for the rest of us just to stop listening.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    It occurred to me after reading and then re-reading comments by Steven, Hiero5ant, and others, that we may not be using the words "ridicule" and "mockery" in the same way. Perhaps one of them could give definitions and examples of what they consider especially effective and or appropriate.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04982524614308121228 Mark Jones

    Jeffery
    Perhaps one of them could give definitions [of ridicule and mockery] and examples of what they consider especially effective and or appropriate.

    I think at the most basic level to ridicule something is to make fun of it or laugh at it, because one finds it laughably false. If an idea is targeted, for example, the aim, I guess, is to suggest that the idea is absurd, or, at least, not true.

    A simple example:

    I always chuckle when a complete stranger tells me that I hate God, as if I could hate something I don't think exists. (http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2011/10/further-evidence-of-lack-of-civil.html)

    The writer has come across an idea that someone has (that the writer hates God), and wants to tell us that it makes him laugh, presumably because it seems absurd to him, and not true. It's certainly a laughable suggestion, to the writer, because he chuckles at it. He is literally not taking the idea seriously. That is ridicule, I think, and seems entirely appropriate to me, if that's how he finds it. If we find an idea ridiculous, should we censor ourselves?

    If the aim of ridicule is to communicate that one finds something silly, then it is very effective. And putting this fact into the public forum seems like a useful thing in itself. Of course, others can counter with their own ridicule and maybe that becomes counter-productive? But surely the point is to place ideas under scrutiny, and pulling punches in the marketplace of ideas would simply allow silly ideas to win out. If the aim is to dissuade someone from a silly idea, perhaps it's not so effective. What if the aim is to influence the views of onlookers?

    The effectiveness of these latter aims of ridicule seems difficult to gauge. I would like to see some hard data on it. Anecdotally, I can think of hundreds of examples in my own life where ridicule showed me how silly some things were, a silliness I hadn't noticed. I would like to see studies on the effect on the target of any ridicule (entrenchment, I think I've seen), and the bystanders (enlightenment, like me?). The film Life of Brian struck me as an effective mocking of a certain type of follower, but I'm unaware the effect it had. Ian Hislop said that satire is for exposing vice, folly and humbug (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7783644.stm), which seems laudable, doesn't it? When asked if his satire was harmful, he replied:

    It's very flattering to be told you are powerful, important and malign, but it's an old argument. All satirists have been told, 'You're making the job of government impossible' when all we are really doing is trying to keep them honest.(http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/sep/23/ian-hislop-private-eye)

    Again, is political satire effective? Some would say not, but it seems plausible to me that it occasionally is. Is it so harmful we should frown on it?

    In the end, if the suggestion is that we should stop employing ridicule against honestly-held beliefs, however apparently silly they seem to us, I think the onus is on those who want such a large part of our cultural life curtailed to show how unproductive it is. In particular, they would need to show that it is unhelpful overall in public discourse – it doesn't contribute to a close examination of ideas, say. Maybe that's the case; I'm quite prepared to accept that behaviour that is centuries old is not necessarily behaviour that is to be encouraged. After all, I think an overly credulous approach to the supernatural should be discouraged, and that behaviour is centuries old too. So I'd be happy to follow the evidence on it. On a practical point, I think I would find it very hard to avoid the ridicule I often hand out to friends, and vice versa, in everyday life. But I could try to avoid it in measured written work, for example. Possibly! Changing the zeitgeist so that shows like The Daily Show and Colbert are deemed unacceptable sounds more difficult to me, however.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    The trouble with Christianity is that it is really hard to ridicule and mock.

    Christians in the UK recently posted the following :-

    ' They sneered at the Lord’s instruction to his priests in Leviticus 3:16 and 7:25 that all the fattiest meat belonged to him and that anyone who stole it must be cut off from his People.'

    They picture their god as somebody who likes fatty meat and will banish (to certain death) anybody who has a slice of his lamb.

    Atheists really would have to go some to produce anything which ridicules and mocks religious belief more than what comes from the mouths of the religious.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10962948073162156902 Victor Reppert

    This is the relevant Dawkins passage.

    I suspect that most of our regular readers here would agree that ridicule, of a humorous nature, is likely to be more effective than the sort of snuggling-up and head-patting that Jerry is attacking. I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt.

    Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others are probably right that contemptuous ridicule is not an expedient way to change the minds of those who are deeply religious. But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.

    My problem is that he is taking what seems ridiculous to someone and turns it into the basis of "fence-sitters" to reject it. In other words, he does seem here to be suggesting that ridicule should take the place of argument. He is content to permit non-rational reasons cause unbelief, since, after all, the end justifies the means. It starts feeling like peer pressure, the sort of thing that led us to change the way we dressed and talked in junior high.

    The fact that something seems ridiculous to someone is, rationally, not an argument against it at all. Evolution has a silly-seeming quality to some people. So what? The procedure seems to me to have all the advantages of theft over honest toil. If we are talking about real reductios ad absurdum, that is one thing. But this is not that. It seems to me that if we follow this advice we are not following the argument where it leads, we are using peoples fear of ridicule as a motivator. And I find that reprehensible.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10962948073162156902 Victor Reppert

    I have to say this as someone who likes the Life of Brian and finds Monty Python's ridicule of Christianity extremely funny. But it is not designed as a reductio ad absurdum of the whole religion, surely. It's not a strategy, and everyone gets hit one way or the other by MP.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    "Nobody likes to be the butt of contempt."

    Well, it depends on whose contempt. I am reminded of FDR when he noted that the big money people hated him and he declared "I welcome their hatred." If you take a stand on a controversial subject–and, of course, none is more controversial than religion–you can expect to have the hatred and contempt of some people. This is especially true if you are an effective and articulate defender of your position and debunker of theirs. Speaking personally, it makes my day when some types get nasty over something I've said.

    By contrast, I have often been surprised at how thin-skinned the religious right often is. They ladle out the vitriol, but if someone squirts a few drops back at them, they cringe, whine, and cry that they are the victims of prejudice.

    The upshot for me is this: If you weigh in on controversial issues, it is naive or disingenuous not to expect to encounter hostility. Grow a thick skin. Rejoice in the contempt of the contemptible. Be civil and gracious when you can, but don't be afraid to deliver the occasional kick in the rump to those that truly deserve it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04982524614308121228 Mark Jones

    Victor Reppert

    I have to say this as someone who likes the Life of Brian and finds Monty Python's ridicule of Christianity extremely funny. But it is not designed as a reductio ad absurdum of the whole religion, surely. It's not a strategy, and everyone gets hit one way or the other by MP.

    Despite its reputation, I don't see Life of Brian as an attack on Christianity but as an attack on the religious; the unthinking sect formers in society. Which includes some Christians, of course.

    Perhaps you could expand on how Monty Python's ridicule escapes your censure? You say that 'everyone gets hit one way or the other by MP', but I'm sure you are not suggesting that because their ridicule is less discriminating than Dawkins's that you are happy with it. MP are presumably ridiculing what they find ridiculous, which is all that Dawkins is doing, isn't it? You object to Dawkins using ridicule in place of an argument, which is a moot point, but do you demand this of MP too? Where are their arguments?

    I suppose Life of Brian is a piece of entertainment, and so we do not expect their work to be as rigorously or seriously presented as a scientist's. Maybe, but I don't see why humour should be out of bounds to the scientist or philosopher. Ridicule is a cornerstone of humour, so I think we need to be very clear why and when we would discourage it.


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