Sunday, January 18, 2015

Should We Mock Religion?

            This is a post that has actually been very difficult for me to write. It started out several weeks ago, in a fairly lighthearted and irreverent tone. But I was still trying to flesh it out and finish it off last week, when a group of armed men slaughtered unarmed cartoonists at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in the names of Allah and Mohammed. That prompted me to scrap much of what I’d already written in favor of a much angrier and more strident post.

            But I’m a slow writer, which means that I’ve had some time to think more soberly about the subject and start to see some of the more alarming responses to that tragedy before finally completing the article. I should say up front that these events have not changed my essential conclusion, though they may have added some nuance to what I want to say about it and altered the tone of my presentation. We’ll get to that conclusion in a moment.

            The question of whether we should mock religion is a subject of debate within atheist communities, and one that at times creates some fairly sharp divisions. After all, in many cases we are talking about deeply held beliefs that many people regard as being at the very core of their identity. It’s an emotionally fraught issue with many pitfalls and much potential to create rancor. Plus there’s the strategic consideration that doing so might simply make us look mean or disrespectful in ways that could make it harder for people who might otherwise agree with the aims of atheist or humanist organizations to ally with them. These are all reasonable arguments for why it might not be the best of ideas for atheists to mock religions.

            And, as yet another group of extremists has just so forcibly reminded us, some people really are willing to kill over it.

            So, in the face of all of that, the question is placed even more forcefully before us: should we mock religion? And to me, the answer remains what it has always been: yes.

            All of us, believer and unbeliever alike, should mock religion whenever and wherever it strikes us as ridiculous. Note that I’m not saying we should mock religion just because it’s religion. Nor am I saying that all ideas contained in religious traditions deserve mockery. I’m saying that whenever a belief or behavior strikes us a ridiculous, then we should feel free to say so even when those beliefs and behaviors are rooted in religion. Preferably with at least a modicum of wit and sensitivity, but ultimately that’s a matter of taste and talent. The long and the short of it is that we are free to ridicule ideas that are ridiculous, and the religious label should not confer automatic immunity.

            Too often, society tries to shield religious ideas from criticism by insisting that we must treat them seriously. Even if we don’t share them, even if they seem like the most uproariously ridiculous thing we’ve ever heard in our lives, any beliefs with the label “religious” on them must be treated with the utmost respect.             But that’s an intellectually bankrupt way to defend any idea. It forgoes any notion of the ideas having merit of their own and simply declares that we’re not allowed to criticize them. If the ideas are worthwhile, they will withstand criticism and mockery, and be stronger for having done so.

            But most (if not all) people (myself included) hold at least some ridiculous beliefs. Many times, we accept them simply because they are considered normal in the culture in which we were raised – this cultural acceptance can deprive us of the ability to recognize their absurdity. Ridicule can help to break down this barrier, and allow us to take a fresh look at ideas we may never have realized seem laughable to others. It’s a chance to step outside our own perspective and look at the ideas anew. Mockery, at its heart, is the use of humor to express criticism. It won’t work for everyone, obviously, but no single approach does. The more we restrict the avenues by which to approach criticism of any ideas, the more we hinder ourselves from ferreting out the good and the bad ones.

            In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, we’ve seen all kinds of outpourings over the free expression issue. Notable among these have been the equivocations from religious speakers to the effect that, while the murders were unacceptable, it’s kind of the paper’s own fault for insulting Islam. Pope Francis made headlines just the other day for stating publicly that it’s natural for insults to be met with violence, and that “you cannot make fun of faith.” I suppose this shocked a lot of people, since the Pope has been building a reputation as a compassionate and reasonable man, but it didn’t surprise me at all. He has to say that. Because he knows that if he concedes that we can make fun of faith in general, then we can make fun of his in particular. He knows that his is no more able to stand up to it than any other, and he’s the leader of an organization that is built on the need to be taken very seriously indeed. Religious leaders of all creeds know the same thing true for their own faiths as well. That’s the reason why they support a consensus that all religious faith, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to anyone on the outside, must be treated seriously.

            It’s a gentleman’s agreement to avoid Mutually Assured Mockery.

            But if an idea is ridiculous, then it is by definition deserving of ridicule. Slapping the label “religious” on a ridiculous idea doesn’t magically transform it into a respectable idea. It remains ridiculous, and shielding it from ridicule remains unjustified. From a non-Mormon perspective, “Wear magic underwear,” is a ridiculous idea. From a non-Muslim perspective, “You deserve to die if you draw the dude who rode the magic winged horse,” is a ridiculous idea. From a non-Christian perspective “You owe everything to a dude because he died for you, even though he’s still alive (just invisible now),” is a ridiculous idea.

            And, among the most ridiculous ideas ever devised is that anyone should be killed for making fun of ridiculous ideas. That idea is a joke. The extremists who supported and pulled off this attack are jokes. Sick, twisted, dangerous jokes they may be, but their reverence for the imagined honor of a centuries-dead warlord is rendered more ridiculous by their willingness to kill over it, not less. It makes their ideas more deserving of mockery, not less. The difference between their behavior and that of a spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum is only the fact that they have guns in hand while they squall their infantile rage. At best, the violence can make us fear them for the danger created by their temper tantrums, but they cannot make us respect the ideas they purport to defend by throwing them.

             In other words, the unreasoned and violent demand that religious belief be above mockery even by those who don’t share them is, in and of itself, a reason for mockery. If you tell me “God will not be mocked,” I respond “Yes, yes he will. And if he has a reasoned objection, he’s welcome to show himself and explain it.”

            But while we’re on the subject… mock atheists and atheist ideas if that’s your inclination. It’s not like we’re above a little ego deflation ourselves.

            So now, having said all that, there’s no reason to be a dick about it. My point is that humor has a role to play in how religions and religious beliefs are addressed; that not only can we mock faith, but sometimes we may even be obligated to do so. It is most emphatically not that we should be asses to people, or that we should never take their feelings into account. Nor should we spend so much attention on making fun of religions that we fail to even think about when and where they make worthwhile points. If you are using humor to shut down your own compassion or critical thinking, you’re probably doing it wrong. But in no case can we concede that the religious label is a blanket shield against any idea being the butt of a joke.
And now, for your amusement...


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