04 April 2015

It's okay to make fun of religion

Nearly ten years ago, Richard Dawkins stirred the pot with The God Delusion, which spent a significant portion of its text discussing the veneer of respectability that religious people demand, and how important it is to subject religious ideas to the same scrutiny and criticism to which we would subject any idea in the public forum.


I'm glad that in the last ten years, lots of debate has opened up about religion. But let's be honest — the overwhelming majority of debates go positively nowhere. It's just a matter of time before an impasse is reached, both sides defiantly entrenched in their conclusions. I experienced this quite often here on The A-Unicornist [1], and recently experienced it in a predictably fruitless debate with Randal Rauser [2]. Right now, my email is getting notifications from Disqus as similarly fruitless debates play out in comments right here in some of the older posts on this blog.

But earlier this week on The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta had this fantastic video about mocking religion:
He's got a great point. I absolutely love George Carlin's skits about religion, and whenever I've translated those ideas into more nuanced arguments, theists give me crickets. I think that some people are fully aware of the prima facie absurdity of their religious beliefs; all the more reason to spend a great deal of time conjuring up complex rationalizations to justify one's emotional, personal, and sometimes professional commitment to patently ridiculous ideas. Take Christianity:
The thing is, while this is obviously phrased in the most sarcastic and cynical way possible, it's not really a stretch. Being a Christian does require you to accept that:
  • God is his own son (and his own father)
  • Jesus prayed to himself, despite being both omnipotent and fully aware of his own divine will and divine plan
  • God, despite being all-knowing, created numerous covenants with humans that didn't work; he promised to create a new, working covenant through the Messiah, who turned out to be... himself
  • God sacrificed himself to himself to pay the price he determined was sufficient to allow himself to forgive us of the corrupt force in our souls, which he cursed our ancestors with after they disobeyed him, that would otherwise force him to send us to Hell forever
  • Even though it's impossible that all of humanity is descended from Adam and Eve — assuming they existed at all — Original Sin somehow entered the human populace and has been genetically transmitted from generation to generation ever since
  • He will forgive you of your crime of human fallibility if you eat him, drink him, and telepathically communicate your remorse with him
  • He will return at some indeterminate point in the future; there will be a great war between good and evil — even though he's omnipotent and could simply will evil out of existence in an instant — and then the bad people will go to the bad place and the good people will go to the good place
These are not caricatures of Christian belief. While there is going to be some disagreement — some believe Adam and Eve were historical figures, and they dispute whether the Communion is literal or symbolic — these are, nonetheless, propositions that all Christians must accept. And they're absolutely ridiculous, and Christians know it.
It's because Christians know how absurd they are that they invest so much time into a purportedly 'rational' defense. It's also why philosophically-inclined Christians almost always avoid these kinds of doctrinal topics, preferring instead to talk about necessary beings, the problem of evil, or whether the universe had a beginning. And let me tell you — you will never, ever win an argument with a believer about those topics. Not necessarily because you're wrong about them, but because theists are so deeply invested in these ideas that it would be devastating for them to consider that they are total nonsense. Even a modest concession could have potentially devastating ripple effects. 

I'm not saying we shouldn't debate theists, ever. Argument has its place, though we ought to know when to quit. But you can often accomplish more by simply getting someone to laugh at themselves than you can by putting them on the defensive, especially when their ideas crucially shape their personal, social, and even professional identities. When sacred ideas are subject to mockery, it's a sign of positive social change. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker discusses how mockery of the idea of the nobility of war has in part led to a sea change in Western culture that has resulted in historically unprecedented peace. The tearing down of sacred cows isn't about making people feel bad; it's about progress.