Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The use of ridicule in atheistic evangelism

There was a time when people valued a good productive conversation in which ideas were exchanged, people understood each other, and arguments were challenging.  Whenever these conversations turned to anger, ridicule, and vitriol, it was thought that the conversation had degenerated.

As long as I've been involved in apologetics, there have always been people who seemed to be capable of nothing more than spouting vitriol, invective, and insult.  You couldn't reason with them.  You couldn't have a civil or rational conversation with them.  The internet is still full of people like that.  YouTube is overrun by them.

But things have changed.  Ridicule and emotional outbursts are no longer limited to random people on the internet.  Now, even the most intelligent and educated atheists are advocating it.  Here is Richard Dawkins encouraging his followers to ridicule Christians (especially Catholics):

When I first started noticing intellectuals engaging in this kind of behavior, I lost respect for them.  I had a hard time taking them seriously.  I automatically assumed that if somebody was acting that way that they were unsophisticated and didn't have much of value to contribute.  It made me not want to read their books because I didn't value their input.  I assumed they were just like the people I had run into on message boards and YouTube.

And that made me curious why they would behave that way.  It seemed counter-productive.  In The God Delusion, Dawkins said his purpose was to convert religious people into atheists (p. 28; my review).  I couldn't understand why he would advocate ridicule if he really wanted to win Christians over.  It seemed like that would just turn them off and make them not even want to read his book or hear his arguments.  My suspicion was that Dawkins had been humiliated for years by people (even his fellow atheists), calling him a coward for refusing to debate William Lane Craig, and he was just lashing out.  He wanted other people to join him in order to reinforce his feeling of superiority.

But then I read a couple of blog entries on Debunking Christianity by John Loftus.  The first one was called "The era of the angry atheist is over." He cited Richard Dawkins as early as 2002 saying, "Let's all stop being so damned respectful."  Then he called it a "strategy."  The goal, apparently, was to wake people up--to get them talking and debating, to get fence-sitters to change their minds, to get atheists to be open about their atheism.  Loftus, who calls himself a pragmatist, argued in this blog entry that the era of the "angry atheist" is (or ought to be) over because the strategy no longer works.  It alienates Christians.  But then he said there are still plenty of reasons to engage in ridicule because, as Richard Carrier argued, "it does have an effect."

The second blog entry I read by Loftus was called "Christian scholars are defending me?  Now I know I'm doomed."  This one was even more revealing.  In this piece, Loftus cites Jeffrey Jay Lowder and Richard Carrier who disagree on the usefulness of ridicule. Lowder thinks it is counter-productive, and Carrier thinks it is productive.  Loftus' own position is that it's kind of productive, but not if it's over-used.  The purpose, according to Carrier, is to get people to change their minds by shaming them into it.  Loftus gives a lucid explanation of how it works:

What PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins are counting on when they use the Courtier's Reply are numbers.  In a society where there are more non-believers than believers, that reply would take its toll on believers because people gravitate toward the opinions of others.  That is to say, people are conforming creatures, most of us.  We don't want to be viewed as strange, weird, or people on the fringes of society.  So if what we believe is ridiculed by a majority of people then we will seek to resolve our cognitive dissonance by reassessing what we believe because of this ridicule.  Ridicule works, but only if there are large numbers of people who do it compared to the numbers of others who believe differently

Loftus himself does not advocate ridicule (at least not to the same degree as Myers, Carrier, and Dawkins), partly because it works by peer pressure rather than reason, which is a bad role model for skepticism, and partly because he thinks it doesn't work that well since atheists don't have enough people to make it effective.

I find this pragmatism very interesting.  The goal is to convert people to atheism, but apparently the means aren't that important.  Whatever works.  It doesn't matter whether you change your mind because reason dictates that you should or if you change your mind just so you can fit in, not feel stupid, be one of the "brights," etc.  The important thing is that you're an atheist. If arguments aren't enough, then use peer pressure.  I'm surprised that people who pride themselves on their use of reason and their elevation of science and evidence over faith and emotional appeals would think this way.

Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnauer have this Kindle book called True Reason, which is a collection of essays by various people who argue that the New Atheists' attempt to take the intellectual high road is pretentious.  I'm inclined to agree with them.  If Richard Carrier is right that ridicule works in getting people to convert to atheism, then there are a lot of atheists in this movement who are atheists because they were shamed into it and not because reason is on their side.  Think about that the next time you carefully lay out a multi-step logical argument, and the only response you get is, "You're an idiot!"


Seth said...

This reminds me of certain religious people who would do whatever works just to get the butts in church seats and to get people on their side. You think these atheists are evangelizing instead of persuading with evidence? I think so.

It's interesting how things have changed. The old atheists were not interested in numbers (by numbers I mean the number of people who were just like them), instead they were just interested in themselves and didn't care so much about "winning" or making a movement out of their philosophy. Then, religious evangelists became interested in numbers, making money, and such and it worked/works for them. So I guess the new atheists are interested in the same outcome from caring about numbers and community? Maybe.

/shrewd observation

Boz said...

Ridicule works.

I have a suspicion that ridicule works to persuade onlookers. And I have seen this anecdotally.

I think that is why it is used. Do you think it works?

I'm not sure if I should advocate it, though.


re: pragmatism, I think this is a moral issue. Dominant religions tend to fuck things up for all citizens. So, there is a moral duty to reduce the suffering caused. Would you be a hypocrite in order to save someone's life?

Sam Harper said...

Yes, I suspect ridicule probably does work in a lot of cases.

You ask an interesting question about whether I'd ridicule somebody in order to save lives. The idea of ridiculing somebody to get them to convert to Christianity so that they will have eternal life does not sit well with me. But if somebody had a gun to my daughter's head and told me that I didn't ridicule her he would shoot her, I probably would ridicule her. So I guess I'm inconsistent.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, and you are correct.

It can be incredibly frustrating to try to engage with people using evidence and to get nothing back except insults.

Here's an example where I engaged some atheists in the comments:

jon_patterns said...

It is sad indeed that scientists, politicians and preachers use this method. I don't belief ridicule can be used to spread love. It does not empower people to chop them down. Maybe Dawkins has an ego problem. This method is an appeal to the instinct to bully.

John B. Moore said...

The atheists don't ridicule reasoned argument and evidence. They just ridicule pious authority and mindless repetition of long debunked arguments. This is an important distinction.

If religious believers could come up with some new arguments or new evidence, the atheists would discuss that respectfully.

Sam Harper said...

John, in any case where two people argue and don't come to an agreement, each side will think the other's arguments were inadequate. So, by your reasoning, ridicule would be justified in any case of disagreement. Theists would be just as justified in ridiculing atheists as atheists would be in ridiculing theists. I don't buy that. Our civility shouldn't be contingent on always coming to agreement. Civility is being able to be respectful in spite of disagreement.