Mocking Atheism

Ever since Randal Rauser kicked me off his blog three years ago, I have rarely gone back. This year my book The Swedish Fish, Deflating the Scuba Diver and Working the Rabbit’s Foot, a response to Rauser’s The Swedish Atheist, The Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails was released. Soon after, I was directed to a post on his website in which a reader asked if he’d respond to my critique of his book.

Needless to say Randal acted as I have come to expect from him, childish, overly defensive and not very professional. He went on to disparage me by slinging not one, not two, not three, not even four, but FIVE ad hominems against my character for the initial comments that got me banned three years ago.

Even so, I couldn’t help but venture over to Randal’s blog again when an interesting April 9, 2015 blog post came up in my Disqus news feed simply titled “Mocking Atheism.”

I read Randal’s comments, in which he basically sets out to defend atheists from mockery and ridicule by believers. A very noble thing for a Christian apologist to do, if you think about it!

This is one of the things that initially attracted me to Randal’s blog three years ago. He seemed like a breath of fresh air in that he was, to his credit, so unlike any of the other Christian apologists I knew. Randal does have a knack for boldly engaging with subject matter that would make most apologists uncomfortable, to say the least.

But here was this interesting blog post where Randal appeared to treat atheists with a modicum of respect and come to their defense against some nasty Christians who were mocking atheists, and that instantly set off red flags. After all, darn near every experience I have had with the guy informs me that he actually doesn’t care one iota about atheists, he certainly isn’t against calling them names, and he will straw-man atheists and what they may believe every chance he gets while banning every single atheist who tries to engage with him on his blog in honest discussion but proves to be persistent enough in their beliefs to pester Randal with differing points of view that he cannot easily dismiss.

So was Randal really being open minded and considerate, or was something else going on here?

In the post “Mocking Atheism,” Randal asks, “So is it ever appropriate to treat an atheist with ridicule, contempt and/or derision?”

Personally, I think it sort of depends on why you are ridiculing them in the first place. Randal seems to agree, when he says, “This prompts the question: to what end?”

After giving an example where a Christian mocks an atheist and then Randal goes to show that the Christian was acting immature by mocking the atheist simply because he disagreed with the atheist’s position, Randal concludes that

If you have the need to mock other people then you do nothing more than reveal your own emotional immaturity (as mom said, you can’t build yourself up by tearing others down) and your inability to grapple seriously with the ideas of other people. Mockery is little more than a warning flag for insecurity, xenophobia and provincialism.

Suffice to say, I feel there are more than a few things I need to say here with respect to mockery and ridicule, and I am going to preface this by saying I don’t just think Randal is plain ole wrong here – I thinks he’s being dangerously wrong and simultaneously completely naïve.

It seems that Randal has a hidden agenda. He wants to ban mockery and ridicule NOT to protect hapless atheists, mind you, but to safeguard himself and his beliefs – to protect his religion from criticism and scorn. 

Ah, and here lies the rub. The apologetic trick Randal employs here is the ole bait and switcharoo. You see, if you agree with him about not wanting these poor atheists to be mocked and ridiculed, then surely you must agree with him when he says religion must not be mocked or ridiculed too.

First, let’s go back to the example Randal gave in the post about a Christian theist ridiculing the atheist simply for thinking differently. Randal was right to call that behavior offensive and condescending, because such ridicule isn’t meant to draw attention to any greater point. It’s merely a bit of grandstanding meant to make yourself look superior while making the other side feel bad about themselves. And that’s clearly wrong. I agree.

In fact, I find such behavior bothersome and I’ve been known to call out conceited theologians who call their readers nasty names and who act condescending to their commenters because they have a superiority complex, and I won’t be nice about it. I might even mock or ridicule them. Ah-ha! But you see the difference, right?

Obviously, I have to part ways with Randal where he puts a full stop after saying that all mockery and ridicule is offensive and wrong, and promotes xenophobia and provincialism. Unlike Randal, I firmly believe that mockery and ridicule have a place. Meanwhile, it may or may not denote a kind of underlying insecurity – it really sort of depends on the context.

Whether anyone cares to admit it or not, there are other reasons to mock or ridicule someone, or something, than just to be mean. It seems that Randal goes out of his way to ignore such a possibility because he is attempting to do what all apologists do, build up his faith and protect it from exacting criticism, derision and ridicule.

But, in my view, mockery and ridicule are necessary because without these tools we could not have satire. As the literary critic Dustin Griffin reminds us in his book Satire: A Critical Reintroduction, “Some satires are of course more topical then others. At one extreme is the lampooning attack on an individual, and the other a ‘satire on mankind.’” (Griffin, p.121) So it seems that ridicule, another term for lampooning, is built into the very fabric of satire.

Randal says that mockery and ridicule of people are wrong, period. But then there are other uses for mockery and ridicule too, as is evidenced by their heavy use in satire.

In the opening paragraph of his blog, Randal defines what “mockery” means, but he neglects to give the full definition. As the Oxford Dictionary of English says, mockery can also be an absurd misrepresentation or imitation of something. This falls into the category of humor, of satire, and polemics.

The French satirist Voltaire, one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment (along with other notable figures such as Descartes, Locke, Newton, Kant, Goethe, Rousseau, and Adam Smith) was infamous for the mockery and ridicule of others. But we might wonder how could such a person ever write something as morally profound as “‘Quoi que vous fassiez, écrasez l'infâme, et aimez qui vous aime,’” or, in English, “Whatever you do, crush the infamous thing, and love those who love you.” 

Was Voltaire just a mean bully who sponsored xenophobia, provincialism, and all the terrible things Randal thinks comes out of the practice of mockery and ridicule? I think not.

Quite to the contrary, Voltaire was drastically opposed to such things, which is why he satirized them and used his fair share of mockery and ridicule when lampooning them.

Furthermore, as the author and intellectual Salman Rushdie has said, “The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.”

He’s not wrong.

After all, Rushdie is quite familiar what the end result of cultures which have become too overly sensitive, too insecure, and too thin-skinned that any trifling disagreement might just be enough for the oppressive authoritarians and conformists to call for your death. Taken to its logical conclusion, the desire to ban criticism and ridicule is the same desire that compels one to want to ban the opinions of others, calling it a blasphemy, while simultaneously attempting to turn one’s own opinions into sacred objects that must never be ridiculed.

In such a culture, a silly or irreverent satirical cartoon drawing could spark outrage and end in embassies get burned to the ground and countless innocent people being murdered. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the cartoon wasn’t offensive, it very well may have been, but perhaps it was drawn offensively to do as Voltaire said, crush the infamous thing.

I’m sorry, I have to strongly and emphatically disagree with Randal. Mockery and ridicule are powerful tools which keep the sacred in check by balancing it with the profane. For we have all seen what happens when those who honor the sacred try to criminalize the profane, who try to make blasphemy illegal, and who try to shield themselves from any form of criticism at any cost, they grow to despise the simple threat of other ideas and opinions different from their own, so much so that they are willing to kill others out of the simple fear of hearing words they may not appreciate or find offensive, hurtful, or irreverent.

I don’t know about you, but I personally find that killing people for their opinions is a far worse crime than mockery or ridicule used to stress a valid criticism or point. Now, if you’re mockery and ridicule is malicious, and simply meant to tear others down for the sake of tearing them down, like an evil stepmother constantly nagging the stepdaughter and making her feel worthless, then yeah, I feel this makes you an asshole, but it’s not worth killing somebody over.

The bottom line is this…

There are of course those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission.

Actually, this is a quote from the film V for Vendetta. But you can see why I chose it.

If we allow such censorship, then we lose more than just our freedom to object, to think and speak as we see fit, to go uncensored and unpunished for expressing ourselves as we wish – we lose our very vitality as human beings, we lose our ability to deliberate, argue, and confide and worse than all of this … we lose the ability to discern the truth from fiction.

Xenophobia, provincialism, censorship, and making the opinions of others unlawful, that is what comes from saying all mockery and ridicule is wrong and that all opinions, as well as the people who utter them, should be immune from criticism, derisive or otherwise. Again, as Salman Rushdie said, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

All this to say, I think Randal is entirely wrong on the matter – mockery and ridicule should not be banished from the ongoing discourse, rather they should be embraced precisely because they are necessary tools for fighting xenophobia, provincialism, and totalitarian and tyrannical censorship. Contrary to what Randal may believe, the very things he so despises, things like xenophobia and provincialism, are not the end result of mockery and ridicule. Rather, the fact is, mockery and ridicule are the immunization against things like xenophobia and provincialism!

So, returning to the question at hand, is mocking atheists okay? As I said, it depends on what your goal is. Is it simply to be mean or is it meant to raise a bigger point? Perhaps the more important question we all should be asking is: Am I, an atheist, deserving of your mockery and ridicule?

I sure hope not, but if I’ve earned it—take your best shot!

As someone who needs his ego deflated on a regular basis, I can assure you, when someone mocks or ridicules me in a way that points out my character flaws, after the initial sting of it, I find that I come to appreciate the underlying message (not always, but a lot of the time).

Needless to say, if I ever get too big for my britches I’d hope someone points it out in such a way that we can all laugh about it later. No hard feelings. After all, the only people who stay perpetually butt-hurt after receiving exacting criticism are those who can’t seem to admit that they might have flaws and, if it wasn’t obvious by now, those who simply cannot take a joke.

Finally, I wish to share with you an extended quote by the little known but influential Freethinker G.W. Foote from his essay “On Riddicule.”  

Goldsmith said there are two classes of people who dread ridicule—priests and fools. They cry out that it is no argument, but they know it is. It has been found the most potent form of argument. Euclid used it in his immortal Geometry; for what else is the reductio ad absurdum which he sometimes employs? Elijah used it against the priests of Baal. The Christian fathers found it effective against the Pagan superstitions, and in turn it was adopted as the best weapon of attack on them by Lucian and Celsus. Ridicule has been used by Bruno, Erasmus, Luther, Rabelais, Swift, and Voltaire, by nearly all the great emancipators of the human mind.

 All these men used it for a serious purpose. They were not comedians who amused the public for pence. They wielded ridicule as a keen rapier, more swift and fatal than the heaviest battle-axe. Terrible as was the levin-brand of their denunciation, it was less dreaded than the Greek fire of their sarcasm. I repeat that they were men of serious aims, and indeed how could they have been otherwise? All true and lasting wit is founded on a basis of seriousness; or else, as Heine said, it is nothing but a sneeze of the reason. Hood felt the same thing when he proposed for his epitaph: “Here lies one who made more puns, and spat more blood, than any other man of his time.”

Buckle well says, in his fine vindication of Voltaire, that he “used ridicule, not as the test of truth, but as the scourge of folly.” And he adds:

His irony, his wit, his pungent and telling sarcasms, produced more effect than the gravest arguments could have done; and there can be no doubt that he was fully justified in using those great resources with which nature had endowed him, since by their aid he advanced the interests of truth, and relieved men from some of their most inveterate prejudices.

 Victor Hugo puts it much better in his grandiose way, when he says of Voltaire that “he was irony incarnate for the salvation of mankind.”

Voltaire’s opponents, as Buckle points out, had a foolish reverence for antiquity, and they were impervious to reason. To compare great things with small, our opponents are of the same character. Grave argument is lost upon them; it runs off them like water from a duck. When we approach the mysteries of their faith in a spirit of reverence, we yield them half the battle. We must concede them nothing. What they call reverence is only conventional prejudice. It must be stripped away from the subject, and if argument will not remove the veil, ridicule will. (Seasons of Freethought, p. 260-61)


The Advocatus Atheist


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