Saturday, May 28, 2011

The role of mockery

There is currently a kerfluffle going on between the Gnu Atheists and the Accommodationists about tone and strategy. Unfortunately, most of the complaints by the Accommodation camp miss the point.

The role of mockery is not to deconvert believers. The goal is to delegitimize authority, thus creating space for people to deconvert on their own. Or not, actually: your average Gnu Atheist is less interested in creating unbelievers than they are in creating thinkers. If you've got a really good reason for being a theist, one so good you think other people should share it, we'd like to hear about it. Or, if you don't have a good reason, but you want to privately entertain your own private fantasies, that's fine, too, as long as we don't hear about it. The only thing the Gnus want to shut down is the presumption that you can assert unbelievable things and have them automatically respected because you somehow worked in the word "faith".

Anyway, as most people have heard, you can't reason a man out of a position he didn't reason himself into. And since most believers hold their position for social or emotional causes, rational argument is simply not going to accomplish anything. How does one go about calling into question social orthodoxy, then?

The answer is obvious. Mockery is the traditional, time-honored way of challenging social orthodoxy. As long as faith is the socially dominant position, it will be the appropriate target of mockery. As long as the inflated fabulisms of priests are taken seriously, they will require puncturing.

When you find a believer who has a rational argument, send them to me. When you find a believer who has an emotional crisis, hold their hand and explain how we have made good, happy lives without faith, despite the inherent indifference of our cold universe. But when you find a believer who believes because Very Important People said it was Right and Wise, then by all means, point, laugh, and scorn.


  1. Mocking an individual as representative of an authority you wish to delegitimize may make sense conceptually, but the recipient of the scorn wil llikely interpret it as nothing more than a personal attack. This post identifies most belief as emotional or social; what does mockery accomplish, then, beyond reinforcing the notion that this fight is indicative of atheists seeing believers as pawns in a larger battle between two competing absolutes, that god definitely exists, and that he definitely does not? You suggest a more empathic route, but limit it to situations of "emotional crisis". I suggest applying that strategy more broadly, and mockery more narrowly.

  2. It is a personal attack. There is no polite way to tell an expert they are wrong, and everybody is an expert on the topic of whether or not they believe in God. Mockery, while not polite, is at least less painful than the options: full on-screaming, shrieking horror, or moral prosecution. It's easier for people to emotionally defend themselves against mockery than it is for them to emotionally defend themselves against cold reason. Making a joke is nicer than nailing them to the wall with logic.

    So, in a way, I am arguing for a more emphatic approach; or more accurately, a more socially lubricated way to air differences. After an exchange of mockery, both sides can retire from the public stage in good order: the damage occurs slowly, in private. After a logical, rational debate, one side is right and the other is wrong, and it's right out there for everyone to see. In my opinion this creates a far stronger need (and thus support) for denialism than mockery does.

    To be clear, though, I'm not suggesting you adopt this strategy. It's great that people like you are out there to hold the offended believer's hands and tut-tut with them over the insensitivity of the Gnu Atheists. It's a wonderful lead-in to the inevitable comment, "But of course, you know they've got a point..." And my point about emotional crisis should make it clear that under the right circumstances, I am also prepared to play that role.

    What I am asking is that you, as an atheist, understand and appreciate the necessary role that public mockery plays. Save your tutting for the believers, not your fellow atheists. We need more mockery, we need it constantly and vociferously, until religion is put in the same social category as racism: a socially indefensible position that is best kept private.

    And then we win, just as we've won the battle over racism. Which is to say, it's still there and it still affects people's lives, but at least it's not part of public policy.

  3. I'm actually an agnostic, not an atheist, so I wouldn't be in the position of nailing a believer to the wall with cold reason, because I don't see how proving that some kind of higher power definitey doesn't exist is any more feasible than proving that it defintely does. I also believe that humanity is inherently irrational on some level, which is why religion exists in some form at every corner of the globe and will likely remain that way forever. I think you would agree with that point, and I also agree that religion, in all it's power, has played a role in making bad public policy, and as such I highly prize the separation of church and state.

    Voltaire wrote, "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd". I doubt I could ever get you to see things my way, just like I doubt I could get you to see that your own views are as much a belief as any other's, hardened by a real sense of persecution that is legitimately founded in present and historical fact. My belief is that if everyone saw things this way, a lot of the troubles you're attempting to defuse by mockery or worse wouldn't be so problematic, namely beliefs being mutually threatening.

  4. "your own views are as much a belief as any other's"

    I have a very logical argument for why this isn't true. However, if you were able to defeat this argument, then yes, I would change my mind.

    I have to warn you, though: that argument includes a fair amount of mockery. :D

    The idea that if we all just lacked any conviction at all, the world would be better, simply isn't true. Absolute certainty is absurd, yes; but objective confidence is necessary. All that evil requires is for good men to do nothing, and standing up in the face of evil requires conviction equal to the cost.

    I'll do a post on why I am not an agnostic, which will explain why I think this way and present my argument for empiricism.