Wednesday, August 01, 2012

On Ridicule: How Far Can Atheists/Secularists Go?

By Hos
When Kazem Sedighi, a prominent cleric in Iran, made the claim (at a government sponsored service, no less), that women who do not dress modestly pave the way for more adultery and (somehow) earthquakes, he probably wasn't thinking what he said was at all silly. But the ever clever Jen McCreight had a brilliant idea: to ask women to show their breasts and see if earthquakes follow, the idea that was popularized as "boobquake". There was no seismic activity, except in the bellies of those participating, at the expense of Islamic fundamentalists.
There has been a recent discussion about what acceptable limits for civilized discussions are, and whether ridicule has a place in the interactions between secularists and people of faith. I am sure many books can be written on the subject. But here is my take.

I find it distasteful to dig into other people's privately held beliefs and subject them to criticism or ridicule, no matter how silly they are. On the other hand, once they start wearing those beliefs on their sleeve and demand that they be made the basis for public policy, my sympathy goes out the door in a heartbeat. I cannot respect their privacy any more than they respect their own.
The argument that is often heard is the complaint that "their faith is not respected". That is perhaps the idea that deserves the most ridicule of all. Respect is not a right, it is earned. And those who demand automatic "respect", no matter how silly the idea, often have very little respect for others.
For example, one of the best known (and most successful) cases of use of parody to shed light on religious dogma has been (His Noodliness) the Flying Spaghetti Monster. When the Kansas Board of Education sought (unsuccessfully) to open the door to creationism by redefining science itself, Bobby Henderson, a physics major, sent them a letter demanding that if they were going to give equal time to science and religious dogma, they also had to give equal time to the idea that the world has been created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Which makes a lot more sense than orthodox faith, given that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the first to admit that he was drunk when he created us, so at least we finally have an idea where ruptured appendices and impacted wisdom teeth come from.
In response to this, there has been no shortage of devout believers writing to Henderson and complaining that he is mocking their faith. Many of the same people have threatened Henderson and his fans with eternal hell fire. Obviously for such people the "right" to be shielded from ridicule trumps the right of their fellow human beings not to be physically torments forever and ever.
I have heard the claim (based on psychological studies but in fact it is common sense) that when people have an emotional investment in an idea, telling them they are wrong will make them cling to the idea even harder, and so ridicule and other harsh forms of criticism will only results in further alienation of the people we are trying to win over. I find this objection misguided, and to a good extent a straw-man argument. Bobby Henderson never said that he was trying to win the then-members of the Kansas board over to science. He was trying to show to everyone else how ridiculous their ideology was, and it had made Kansas a joke. Who knows, maybe the FSM did play a part in those individuals not being re-elected.
I think it is further important to remember that the faithful are not a monolith. There has been no shortage of self-proclaimed Christians leaving messages on the FSM boards saying there is nothing offensive about the idea, and if anything it is hilarious. Those who keep demanding that we shut up and not laugh at silly attempts to corrupt public policy with religious ideology need to give the faithful more credit. Not all believers are immature, thin-skinned whiners who can't take a joke.
Lastly, I think it is important to point out what makes an idea silly is the nature of the idea, not on who holds it. For example, atheist Alain de Botton wrote a book about sex, in which he complains about half-naked girls on the beach and claim a degree of repression is necessary for our mental health. Any Shiite Muslim or Puritan Christian cleric would be proud.
Lastly, a word on this subject from Jesus. It seems he was very much against insults:
"Anyone who says, though fool, shall be in danger of hell fire." Matthew 5-22.
So Jesus would never call anyone a fool, right?
"You blind fools". Matthew 23-17.

(Image from, my favorite tongue in cheek site on the bible.)


Robert Ahrens said...

Excellent, Hos! Very well done!

Carl said...

Great article I would say that it is always okay to ridicule any political person anytime they bring up policies that have to do with their religious belief.

Anonymous said...