I remember how religious mockery bothered me when I joined my first atheist group on Facebook. It was a shock to my system. Here were all these people, openly mocking beliefs which were sacrosanct to me only a few months before. They were posting memes, jokes, and parodies of Christian teachings that felt unfair and unrepresentative of the faith that I had once held myself. It was a private group, so only we could see it, but it still struck me as bitter, juvenile, and unproductive. At times I found myself wanting to defend those whom I felt these flippant postings were misrepresenting, and I probably did from time to time. In time, though, I learned to join in on the revelry because I came to see the usefulness of what everyone was doing.
For one thing, those representations of faith which struck me as unfair turned out to be quite accurate about a large contingent of religious communities I had never known. Before I began writing about my own apostasy, I had no idea just how kooky Christianity could be. My own experience had been more sane than some of what’s out there. I had always been drawn to a fairly intellectual and self-aware kind of Christianity, so the kinds of stupidity my new atheist friends were mocking just felt unreal and unfair. But then I met the kind of person they were describing. In fact, once I started publishing my thoughts online, the crazies came out of the woodwork. It turns out there are a thousand different kinds of Christianity, and some of the saner forms even have their own closet craziness that only comes out once you tell them you’re an atheist. In time I came to see that my friends weren’t making this stuff up. It really gets as bad as you can imagine, and probably worse.
THEY WEREN’T MAKING THIS STUFF UP
We often accuse religious people of strawmanning atheists by depicting us as amoral brutes who are angry at a deity we say we don’t even believe exists. It makes sense that most Christians wouldn’t instinctively understand how real-life atheists think because they’ve never been one themselves. Even those who claim they “used to be an atheist” are most likely using an incredibly imprecise definition of “atheist” whereby anyone less than completely committed to his faith is “an atheist” by default. So anyone who is “worldly” in his behavior is therefore “an atheist” because he is living as if there were no God. This is a terrible definition of atheist, but it’s how they think, and it explains why so many who claim they used to be atheists show so little understanding for the reasons why we are what we say we are.
But most atheists I know used to be religious (I live in a very religious country), so it puzzled me that they kept misrepresenting my former faith. I figured they should know better. But then I started meeting the kind of religious people they were describing and I came to see that it is almost impossible to strawman the Christian faith. There are so many different kinds out there, and they get so weird, so judgmental, so irrational and inflexible that no matter how batshit crazy you depict them, there are probably large communities who embody the ridiculousness you’ve just described. Poe’s Law states that the more extremist people’s positions become, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish between what is parody and what is real life. In time it becomes almost impossible to unfairly mock religion because somewhere there is a group that says and does exactly what you’ve just said, and perhaps even worse. It turns out my friends weren’t being as uncharitable as I thought. It’s just that I had a better experience than what they described, and I didn’t know any better.
GROWING INTO A NEW FREEDOM
Deconversion doesn’t happen all at once. The actual realization that you no longer believe can be sudden, to be sure. It’s almost like a switch gets flipped and a light goes on. Suddenly the same room you’ve been standing in looks totally different. But it takes time to learn to think in a new way. A key paradigm has shifted, yes, but it will take time to work out the implications of this sea change in thinking. That’s why for a number of months following a person’s initial loss of faith, he may feel and sound double-minded about his former dogmas. As odd as it sounds, people in Belief Limbo can still get offended by criticisms directed at ideas they no longer even believe. It’s like a habit they haven’t grown out of yet. Imagine a dog chained to a post for years. After you remove the chains, it still takes a while before it feels right to him to venture beyond the confines of his former restrictions.
Besides this, some of us also maintain relationships with close friends and relatives who are themselves very religious. Those who are still thoroughly immersed in those relationships will likely find it difficult to desensitize themselves to religious mockery because they instinctively internalize the offenses of their loved ones. It’s a survival technique. In order to remain on good terms with those close to them, they have to remain vigilant against saying (and therefore sometimes thinking) highly negative things about those most cherished beliefs. As a result, they recoil at open mockery, sometimes even defending those beliefs which to which they no longer hold.This frustrates the stew out of atheists who don’t have anyone close to them who is very religious. For the life of them they cannot understand why a non-believer would stand up for respecting Jesus. I would ask those folks to cut them some slack. It’s hard to straddle two worlds sometimes. You have to develop an amphibious brain, capable of enduring one conversation thick with praise-the-Lords and hallelujahs but then switching almost immediately to another with “taking the Lord’s name in vain” (gasp) and pictures of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane while making farting noises with his hands. You can almost get whiplash from the contrasts. You find yourself pausing before each statement you make, asking first: “Wait, which context am I in now? Can I poke fun at this or not?” It’s like being a bilingual commuter between two countries. The culture shock can take a while to get over.
Having said that, I’d like to encourage those still in Belief Limbo to be patient with the process and realize that you may think differently about things over time. As you grow into this new ideological world, you will likely see that much of what got you worked up about in the past really doesn’t deserve the attention that it got. You will hopefully also build new relationships with friends around whom you can let down your guard, freely speaking your mind and venting about the struggles you carry around with you. The more at home you feel around them, the more you will see that lightning really isn’t going to strike you for poking fun at fictitious beings. Blasphemy isn’t so bad, once you get what it’s for. In fact, the mockery of ideas serves a very healthy and necessary function that I’d like to explain.
MOCKERY HAS ITS PLACE
All important social change requires challenging the status quo. It requires openly criticizing “the powers that be,” which means at some point someone is going to have to poke fun at somebody or something. Christopher Hitchens put it quite well when he said:
Mockery of religion is one of the most essential things…one of the beginnings of human emancipation is the ability to laugh at authority.
As I write this, I am sitting in a classroom surrounded by political cartoons taken from key turning points in American history. What I see around me are evidences of the the importance of satire in helping facilitate social change. Mocking both ideas and the institutions they protect has played a key role in bringing about social progress everywhere that it’s been achieved. Any institution which cannot be mocked has absolute control over its subjects. Learning to satirize the irrationalities and excesses of those institutions is an essential part of exposing them to much needed critical analysis. So please consider that the next time you feel the need to discourage others from mocking religious dogma.
Some have found it helpful to distinguish between satire and mockery, using the former to describe criticizing ideas and institutions while using the latter to refer to putting people down and belittling them for what they believe (which is bad, m’kay?). However you choose to define those words, there is often a fine line between the two and it feels like walking a tightrope. Unfortunately, some people have no sense of balance when it comes to these things, and I find it does little good to try to explain it to them. I suspect it has to do with a combination of how much religion you have in your own past, and how naturally empathetic you happen to be. It would do us all good, though, to learn to criticize those dogmatic beliefs and practices which continue to hinder our own psychological health and social progress. It’s not all just bitter diatribes and juvenile venting. Some of this serves a useful function, so cut them some slack as well.
Use wisdom about how, when, and where you share things on social media. When in a public setting, you would be wise to consider just how many different kinds of people are reading what you have to say. I for one put more time and thinking into what I post publicly than most of my Christian friends because I’ve become sensitive to the ways that these things affect people, while many of them haven’t yet found reason to do that. Many of them feel duty bound to broadcast their beliefs for everyone’s own good because of divine fiat, but they do so with very little awareness about how they come across as they’re saying it because they’ve never been in our shoes. And no, going through “a period of doubt” is not the same thing. *sigh*
People deserve respect; ideas do not. Ideas have consequences and bad ideas have bad consequences. That’s why it’s incumbent upon us to critically analyze the things we think and say, taking some responsibility for the things they make happen. If we don’t speak up, who else will?
Seth Andrews (aka The Thinking Atheist) did a podcast recently on this very topic. I’d highly recommend it (unless you happen to be easily offended by, you know, atheism). If you have the time, check it out:
If you’d like to read more by Neil, click the Godless in Dixie tab on the menu at the top to see his blog.