On the internet, you’re free to speak your mind, no matter how unquestionably and empirically retarded your opinion happens to be. However, because you’re putting your opinion out on the internet where everyone can see it, everything you say is going to be scrutinized, measured, and appraised for its content, on its own merits, and when what you say is found lacking, people are going to tell you so. Then make fun of you mercilessly for it. The whole internet gravitated toward this model, and for an excellent reason — it is a meritocracy on a global scale.
There’s one major problem with this setup, as illustrated on Pharyngula, and in the case of presenting religious arguments, it is codified in the concept of “Poe’s Law”: it is impossible to write a parody of a creationist trope that will not convince at least one reader that it’s a legitimate belief held by a real religious person. A corollary to this is that it’s impossible to distinguish parody from legitimate beliefs held by these god-bots, specifically because no matter how wacky or ridiculous the belief or illogical the behaviour, someone has done it, seriously and earnestly.
I have some religious friends. These are people who believe that God exists, but do not attempt to deny the vast tracts of knowledge developed through the millenia via the scientific method. They are reasonable, and reasoning, people. We don’t see eye to eye regarding the utility of the whole concept of believing in an anthropomorphic higher being, but I respect their beliefs a damn sight more than I do people who think the Bible is a history textbook and any science that refutes it must be wrong, and light years more than I respect the people who honestly think atheism is an evil worthy of being reported to the FBI.
The problem with this particular letter is that it is so over the top and full of contradictions (e.g., that the girl’s father won’t let her into the house, yet the mother prays over her at night), that it seems almost obviously a Poe — that is to say, someone parodying fundamentalist beliefs. But what proof is there? The fact that there are logical contradictions? Those could be timeline issues stemming from poor story-telling skills. The over-the-top reaction to the daughter declaring herself an atheist? I once was confronted by some Jehovah’s Witnesses when I was first toying with the idea of coming out as an atheist, and I tried it out on these, the most fundamentalist of fundies, and they asked me why I would worship Satan when I knew it would cost me my everlasting soul — as though not believing in God (or by extension, Satan) meant that de facto I actually just hated God and was cheering on the other team; the fact that I came out to them only increased their proselytizing tenfold. These fundamentalist reactions are endemic to the level of indoctrination, and to the level of incuriosity that is instilled into these people over years and years of reinforcement that the holy book is the only piece of information that is, or will ever be, correct or true, for all eternity.
I know at least one religious friend of mine (a particular son of a preacher-man that you may be able to figure out if you’re a thorough reader of my earlier blog posts including comments), that refuses to debate online with me, probably partly because of the venue not lending well to being able to see the opponent’s emotions or elicit off-the-cuff remarks that usually get scrubbed out with the proofreading and polish that’s done on a blog post. This would provide him with a number of advantages over me, in that I seem much more empathetic when debating religion in person; trying not to offend while at the same time pointing out the inherent contradictions of the system of belief, and that I tend to make remarks that aren’t necessarily easily defensible when I get caught up in the heat of the moment.
I don’t blame him for wanting to keep these debates offline, not only for fear of misinterpreting the debate and hurting our friendship, but also because someone, somewhere out there, is going to call him a Poe. And if you really believe, that would probably be the most devastating critique to have levelled at you.