Is it ever okay to mock a marginalized religion, or the religion of a marginalized culture?
When I posted my recent photo gallery of Strange Religious Imagery In My Neighborhood, I was taken to task for being culturally insensitive. Commenter Raul, who apparently lives in the neighborhood (or at least is very familiar with it), was disappointed in my post. He felt that the attitude it expressed to Latino history and the culture of the neighborhood was disrespectful, dismissive, smart-assed, and ignorant… among other things. (You really should read his comment, as it expresses his point of view better than I can.)
This is my reply.
First: Raul, I do think you have a point. I get that I am something of an interloper in this neighborhood, and while to some extent that’s just the reality of neighborhoods (the Castro was a working- class Irish neighborhood before Teh Gays started moving in), I get that this is an issue, and I try to stay aware of it. I’m friendly to my neighbors (well, as friendly as I am to anybody I don’t know well); I make a point of patronizing neighborhood businesses that have been here a while; I mostly avoid the Johnny- come- lately gentrification businesses (with a handful of exceptions — you’ll get my Dynamo donut when you pry it from my cold dead hands); etc. This is not a new issue to me: it’s an issue I’ve thought about at length, and I thought about it carefully when I was putting together my “strange religious art” post. (I actually went to some trouble to have the gallery not be solely or even primarily about Latino imagery: hence the meditating alien, the Rabbit in the Sky mural, Poseidon, and the triad of Eastern religious symbols on the utility box.)
And I get that critiquing or poking fun at aspects of the culture in which one is something of an interloper can be a dicey proposition. Especially when one is an interloper from the dominant culture into a more marginalized one.
But ultimately, I don’t accept your argument.
Here’s my problem with your argument. Virtually every culture and sub-culture in this country — heck, on this planet — has its own distinct religion and/or spirituality. For most of those cultures, religion and spirituality are deeply and intimately interwoven into the culture.
And many of those religions, arguably most of them, are religions of marginalized cultures. I’ve heard arguments similar to yours about African- American religion: religion is so important to that culture, it’s wrong for outsiders to critique it or mock it, to point out its absurdities and inconsistencies or try to persuade people out of it. Christian fundamentalism is largely the religion of poor people in the American South. Catholicism in America is largely the religion of immigrant or marginalized recent- immigrant cultures: Latino, but also Irish- and Italian-Americans. Judaism. Hinduism. Islam. Wicca. I could go on and on. Either many of the believers in these religions, or the cultures these religions are prevalent in, or the religions themselves, are the recipients of some sort of bigotry or discrimination.
Are atheists therefore not to criticize any of them?
Let me put it this way. If it’s not right for me to criticize or poke fun at any of these religions out of respect for the culture, I’m pretty much left with Episcopalianism.
And while, okay, Episcopalianism is deserving of criticism, and while Episcopalianism is pretty darned funny… that’s still awfully limiting. That doesn’t give me much to blog about. More seriously: Trying to follow this rule would keep me from speaking out against some of the worst horrors perpetrated by religion… and from pointing and laughing at some of religion’s most mind-boggling absurdities.
In other words: The argument that critiquing a given religion is culturally insensitive? It’s essentially a “shut up, that’s why” argument. It’s an attempt to cut people off from pointing out religion’s absurdities: not all at once, but one religion at a time.
Now. The devil’s advocate in my head is arguing that it’s okay to critique… but it’s not okay to poke fun. It’s okay to criticize the religions of marginalized cultures… but I have to do it soberly, and with respect.
But the devil’s advocate in my head is not convincing me. As I’ve written before: Humor is one of the single most powerful, time-honored forms of social criticism we have. Humor is a singularly effective tool at spotlighting and deflating pretention, hypocrisy, inconsistency, greed, corruption, willful ignorance, and just flat-out absurdity.
And when it comes to religion, humor is absolutely crucial to the deflation process. One of the whole points of atheism, as far as I’m concerned, is that religion is the Emperor’s new clothes. Like I said in my Strange Religious Imagery post: People see familiar religions as normal, and unfamiliar religions as freakish and bizarre. So one of the primary points of poking fun at religion is to get people to see their own religion from the perspective of an outsider… and to get people to see that, from the perspective of a non-believer, all religion looks equally silly. (As somebody whose name I can’t remember once said: If you don’t want your beliefs to be ridiculed, don’t have such ridiculous beliefs.)
So the idea that atheists shouldn’t poke fun at religious practices that people take seriously is, once again, essentially a “shut up, that’s why” argument. It’s an attempt to take out of our hands one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. (Sort of like asking atheists not to be so angry.) Again, if I can’t poke fun at any religion that’s precious to a marginalized subculture, then I’m pretty much left with Episcopalians. And I only have so many jokes about golf pants in me.
And I don’t agree with your double standard argument at all. By all means, make fun of Judaism. Other atheists do. I have. Just last month, I referred to a specific tenet of Orthodox Judaism as a “belief in girl cooties.” In this blog, I have made fun of Judaism, Catholicism, fundamentalist Christianity, moderate Christianity, “so far left it’s falling off the continent” Christianity, Wicca, astrology, neo-Paganism, assorted other New Agery and woo, belief in telepathy, belief in guardian angels, Quakerism, Deism, Mormonism, Unitarianism, Baha’i, and the Christian theology from the Middle Ages asserting that the Virgin Mary was impregnated in her ear.
And I’ve made fun of atheism. Boy, howdy, have I ever.
It’s a fine line to walk, making fun of the religion but not the culture — especially since religion and culture are usually so closely intertwined. And yes, when a culture is especially marginalized, or when there’s an ugly history of bigoted and hateful mockery against it, or when you’re in the position of being something of an interloper/ guest in that culture, then you have to walk that line more carefully.
Which I was trying to do in my Strange Religious Imagery post. The post was somewhat mocking, yes; but I was trying for a gently mocking tone, even a lovingly mocking tone. I passionately love this neighborhood: it gives me joy just to walk around in it, and I show it off to visitors with beaming pride. And one of the things I love most about it is how much art there is everywhere, and how beautiful and strange so much of it is. (I don’t see “strange” as an insult, btw — most of the art I love best is deeply strange.) The point of the gallery was not, “Look at the wacky stuff Latinos in the Mission believe.” It was, “Look at the wacky stuff people believe, and the fascinating ways they turn it into art.” (Again — hence the inclusion of the meditating space alien and so on.)
I get that this post was not the most brilliant or insightful one that I’ve ever written. (They can’t all be gems.) But I do think I had a point to make — the point I made at the beginning of the gallery, about how unfamiliar religions seem weird and silly, but familiar religions seem normal and reasonable until you start looking at them closely. Sometimes I make my points in thoughtful, soul- searching essays… but sometimes, I want to take a lighter tone. And as a writer, if I’m constantly second-guessing myself for fear of offending someone — especially on the topic of religion, which people get offended about at the drop of a hat — I’m never going to say anything at all.
I do hope that people will call me on it if they think I’ve crossed a line, and I appreciate you doing that. But it seems that the gist of your argument is, “we should never criticize or mock other people’s religions, especially the religions of marginalized people, because it’s culturally disrespectful.” That’s an argument I’ve considered. And it’s one that, for all the reasons outlined here, I ultimately just don’t accept.