Is it okay to mock religion?
And if so, is it ever not okay to mock religion?
I got an interesting question from Ola the other day. She asked:
I have a question for you that arose in one of my disputes with a religious person, and it really bothers me. The question is about the use of humor in our arguments. Not just humor — irony. Sarcasm. Snark, if you wish. Things like the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Kissing Hank’s Ass.
People say that it is mean and disrespectful to mock their beliefs. No, I know what you’re about to say! You wrote: “Atheists see religion as just another hypothesis about how the world works. We decline to treat it with more respect than any other opinions, theories, philosophies. We decline to treat its writings with more respect than any other books, its leaders with more respect than any other political or community figures…” but that’s not quite it. The people who make this argument actually sound like they mean it to include not just religious beliefs, as an exception — but all beliefs and opinions. What they say is that humor and sarcasm are not arguments — they are cheap tricks to bias people emotionally, and they have no place in a meaningful debate. If you really want to discuss something, you should be deadly serious. Or so I understand.
What do you think?
Well, let’s see.
Is it ever okay to use humor and sarcasm when discussing an important topic?
My answer to that particular question is a completely unequivocal “Yes.” Of course it is. From Aristophanes to Jon Stewart, from Mark Twain to Molly Ivins, from Jonathan Swift to Monty Python, from Chaucer to The Onion, satire is a powerful, time-honored form of social and political criticism. Humor and mockery can be used to point out the pretentions and deceptions of the greedy, the pompous, the self- important, the hypocritical, the corrupt, the willfully ignorant… often far more effectively than any other device. Humor shakes you out of your usual way of looking at things and gives a different perspective on it — and when you’re subverting the dominant paradigm or whatnot, that’s absolutely crucial. When the emperor has no clothes, sometimes the only appropriate response is to point and laugh.
And if nothing else, humor keeps people paying attention. People will keep watching your TV show, listening to your radio program, reading your book or your blog post, if you’re entertaining them. It’s not just that humor is often more effective than sober commentary. It’s that it goes down easier. It keeps people listening… and it keeps people coming back. Plus it’s often more memorable.
I think this one is pretty much a no-brainer. Humor and sarcasm as legitimate social commentary? You bet! But I do want to address the question it brings up. Namely:
Is it acceptable — and is it useful — to use humor and mockery to critique religion?
First, just to be clear: I’m not talking about whether it’s legally okay. Of course it is — and in parts of the world where it isn’t, it should be. I’m not talking about whether people have the right to mock religion. I’m talking about whether it’s right to mock religion: whether mocking religion is ethical, or kind, or effective.
And surprising as it may seem, given the above rant about the power of satire as political and social commentary, I actually don’t think that’s a question with a single, simple “yes or no” answer. I think it’s a question whose answer depends on at least four other questions that I can think of.
1: What’s the context?
Are we talking about mocking religion on your blog… or are we talking about mocking religion at Thanksgiving dinner? Are we mocking it in a book or a magazine article or a letter to the editor… or are we mocking it in a personal conversation with a friend about their beliefs?
I think the rules about public conversation are very different from the rules about private conversation. In public conversation, a much higher degree of criticism, both serious and sarcastic, is considered acceptable. (This is a point Richard Dawkins has made: the kind of language that’s decried as intolerant and insulting in atheist critique of religion is accepted with barely a blink in political commentary or restaurant reviews.)
In public discourse, ideas and information take precedence. That’s the whole idea of the marketplace of ideas. People speak loudly and passionately in favor of their ideas and against ones they disagree with, so that — ideally, at least — the most convincing ideas will be the ones that eventually sell. People do this using every rhetorical tool they have… including sarcasm. Dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and satire. They use all the tricks. And if you participate in public discourse, you’re expected to have a thick skin. If you dish it out, you should be able to take it. (See above, re: satire as a respectable, time-honored form of political and social discourse.)
And to this end, I think mockery of religion isn’t just acceptable. It can be a positive good. It can be a way of saying, “We decline to treat religion with kid gloves anymore. We see religion as just another idea about the world… and when it’s a silly idea, we’re going to make fun of it, just like we would with any other silly idea.” The expectation that religion should be treated with extra respect is one of the main ways that religion protects itself from legitimate criticism… and mocking religion can be an important part of stripping that protection from it and making it defend itself just like any other idea.
But in private discourse, ideas and information don’t necessarily take precedence. In private discourse, personal relationships between people often take precedence. Kindness to the people you love and care about often takes precedence. If you’re writing a magazine article or a fashion blog, you might say, “Gaucho pants are a crime against humanity”… but you presumably wouldn’t say it to your cousin Cindy who shows up at dinner wearing them. And I think a similar principle applies to religion.
What’s more, in public conversation, it’s much easier for someone who doesn’t like what you’re saying to turn away: turn the page of the newspaper, change the channel on the TV, click to another blog. That’s a lot harder to do at Thanksgiving dinner. In a situation where there’s a strong social expectation that people not just walk out, I think it’s rude and unkind to put them in a position where their only choices are to walk out, to get into a big argument, or to sit there and let themselves be made fun of.
I’m not saying that religion is off-limits in personal conversation. I’m just saying the tone we take should be different. Personally, unless I’m pretty sure that everyone else in the room is a non-believer, I rarely bring up religion in social situations (although if someone ask what I blog about, I will usually say “Atheism and sex”). And if someone else brings it up, I try to step lightly, speak tactfully, choose my words carefully… a lot more lightly and tactfully and carefully than I do in my blog. And even if my own beliefs aren’t being treated respectfully, I still try to take the high road — a lot more so than I would in a public conversation. I may still use humor… but I’ll be a lot more gentle about it than I would in public writing or conversation.
2: Who or what, exactly, is the target of the mockery?
There’s a line I try to draw when I’m being critical or mocking of religion. The line is this: I try to focus my criticism and mockery on beliefs and actions — not on people. I try to remember to say things like, “Catholicism is stupid” — not “Catholics are stupid.”
Partly I do this because I think saying “Catholics are stupid” veers dangerously close to religious bigotry. Because Catholics are so diverse, and vary so greatly in how much they do or don’t adhere to the tenets of Catholicism, saying “Catholics are stupid” is essentially deriding people on the basis of the group they belong to, instead of for what they themselves say and do. When we aim our mockery at religious ideas and actions, we’re participating in a noble tradition of satire as social criticism. When we aim our mockery at religious people, we’re participating in a much uglier tradition.
But I also do this because I think saying “Catholics are stupid” is patently untrue. Catholics are no more stupid or smart than anyone else. They have, IMO, some mistaken ideas about the world… but so does everyone else in the human race. You don’t have to be stupid to make mistakes. You don’t even have to be stupid to stubbornly hold on to mistakes in the face of overwhelming evidence. The human tendency to rationalize mistakes can be an aggravating one… but it’s also a universal one, one that every one of us shares. And the human ability to compartmentalize can be a deeply aggravating one… but it also gives room for people with some dumb ideas to still be smart and capable in other areas of their lives.
I do make a few exceptions. Public figures who deliberately make religion a big part of their public image, I think, are fair game… especially when they’re big old hypocrites. But on the whole, I try to aim my criticism of religion — mocking and otherwise — at ideas and actions, not at people or groups.
3: What kind of mockery are we talking about, anyway?
There’s mockery, and there’s mockery.
There’s mockery that has a point. There’s mockery that shines a spotlight on inconsistency, hypocrisy, stupidity, greed, arrogance, close-mindedness, sloppy thinking, and flat-out evil. (The kind of mockery than Jon Stewart is king of.)
And then there’s mockery of the “Janie is a doo-doo-head” variety. The kind of mockery that calls names and makes fun without any real content or point. The kind of mockery that essentially substitutes invective for analysis. (The kind of mockery that, alas, Keith Olberman is all too prone to.)
The latter, I think, is a whole lot less useful. It has its place, to be sure: it can be entertaining in the right context, and it can do a lot to relieve tension and forge bonds within a movement. And I certainly won’t deny that I’ve indulged in it myself. But I don’t have nearly the same “this is a powerful and venerated form of social commentary that dates back to ancient times, yada yada yada” respect for it that I do for the other kind.
Finally, and maybe most importantly:
4: What are you trying to accomplish?
Are you trying to rally the troops? Are you trying to lift the spirits of non-believers who already agree with you, and to forge stronger bonds between you? Are you trying to inspire other atheists to get more involved, to take a further step into visibility and action? Are you trying to draw attention to atheism in the media and the public eye? Are you trying to shift the public perception of religion: to shake it off its pedestal, and get people to see it as just another institution, and just another view of the world, which we can debate and make fun of just like any other?
Or are you trying to engage in fruitful debate with people who disagree with you? Are you trying to persuade believers to reconsider their religious beliefs… or at least, to reconsider their attitude towards atheists?
Both of these are useful, valid goals. But they require a different approach. And in my experience, mockery is more useful in the first set of goals than the second. Very, very few people in this world will be persuaded that they’re wrong by being made fun of. Generally speaking, making fun of people makes them defensive, entrenches them more stubbornly in their beliefs. And this is especially true when it comes to beliefs that are deeply held, and deeply precious and important to people.
It’s not that humor can never be used in a respectful, persuasive, one-on-one debate. But in my experience, it has to be used more sparingly, and more lightly: with less of a mocking, sarcastic, “don’t you see what an idiot you’re being?” tone, and more of a gentle, “we are all fools together” tone.
If that makes sense.
Oh, and by the way, Ola: Thanks for the “Kissing Hank’s Ass” thing. I hadn’t heard that meme before. That is fracking hilarious.