On the Uses of Ridicule

I've told you all the story of how I became an atheist. But I've never written about what came before that: what made this a topic of interest for me, what first motivated me to think about these issues at all. Well, today I want to tell that part of the story.

This was around my last year of high school. I was surfing Internet chat rooms when I saw someone in one of them give an offhand reference to the site Things Creationists Hate by Bob Riggins, a sarcastic list of things that contradict creationist belief - everything from sand piles to the apostle Paul.

I read the whole page the first time I saw it, and I was hooked. I went back several times in the following weeks, reading new things as the author added them, and then branched out into exploring other websites, including some with a snarky and irreverent attitude towards religion (there was one I remember called Fade to Black, now defunct). I wasn't yet an atheist at that point, but it got me to realize that claims made in the name of religion could be questioned, even mocked - and that was what set the stage for my subsequent deconversion.

I bring this all up because, yet again, there's an ongoing tiff with an accommodationist - in this case the astronomy blogger Phil Plait - who's chastising the skeptical and atheist community for being excessively vitriolic and insulting:

"How many of you here today used to believe in something - used to, past tense - whether it was flying saucers, psychic powers, religion, anything like that... [and] no longer believe in those things and became a skeptic because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot, brain-damaged and a retard?"

It's hard to disagree with the point as he phrases it, but the problem is this: Plait never said who, specifically, he was talking about. In fact, he made it a point not to cite any specific examples. This makes it very difficult to evaluate the merit of his argument, and raises the suspicion that he's just throwing up an inflammatory straw man. I don't know very many skeptics whose approach consists of getting in people's faces and screaming insults at them. But I do know many skeptics who mercilessly mock ridiculous beliefs, who argue using snark and sarcasm, and who forthrightly call irrational nonsense what it is. Is Plait talking about them? Is he talking about me? Where, specifically, does he think the line is? His argument isn't helpful if it doesn't answer these questions.

Richard Dawkins penned a comment on Jerry Coyne's site in response:

As Jerry said, Plait quoted no examples of skeptics who scream insults in people's face. I don't think I have ever met, seen or heard one. But I could quote plenty of skeptics who employ ridicule, who skewer pretentiousness, stupidity and ignorance using wit. Listening to such ridicule, and reading it, is one of the great joys life has to offer. And I suspect that it is very effective.

My second point is that Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. Speaking for myself, it is often a third party (or a large number of third parties) who are listening in, or reading along... when I employ ridicule against the arguments of a young earth creationist, I am almost never trying to convert the YEC himself. That is probably a waste of time. I am trying to influence all the third parties listening in, or reading my books. I am amazed at Plait's naivety in overlooking that and treating it as obvious that our goal is to convert the target of our ridicule. Ridicule may indeed annoy the target and cause him to dig his toes in. But our goal might very well be (in my case usually is) to influence third parties, sitting on the fence, or just not very well-informed about the issues. And to achieve that goal, ridicule can be very effective indeed.

As usual, Dawkins is correct, and I offer myself as Exhibit A. The whole reason I'm an atheist, the reason that Ebon Musings and Daylight Atheism exist, is because of those websites which made me realize that religious beliefs could be poked fun at. Ridicule has its uses: If skillfully deployed in an argument, it can be more persuasive than anything else - nothing gets someone on your side like making them laugh. It helps break down the stifling aura of solemnity and respect that religions have convinced themselves they deserve, and that they use to smother legitimate criticism. And it communicates, more eloquently than any cool and dispassionate argument ever could, that it's okay not to believe this stuff!

Unlike some people who are receiving honoraria from the Templeton Foundation, I credit Phil Plait with good faith. I think his words were intended to remedy what he sees as a genuine problem, not as a cynical ploy to shut atheists up. But, again, by failing to identify any real instances of what he sees as unhelpful behavior and instead beating up on a straw man, he doesn't offer any guidelines even to people who might have been persuaded. I'd much rather err on the side of too much criticism of religion, rather than too little, and for all that his remarks were intended as a helpful nudge, they're a nudge in the wrong direction.

August 30, 2010, 5:45 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink30 comments
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Find Me at the FFRF Convention

So, let it be known to all that I plan to attend the 2010 annual convention of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which will be in Madison, Wisconsin the weekend of October 29-31. Ayaan Hirsi Ali will be the featured speaker, and since it's Halloween, I'm sure she'll have some scary stories to tell us all...

If you're an FFRF member (and if you're not, why aren't you?) and you're also planning to attend the convention, let me know - I'd be happy to meet up at some point during the weekend. If you're just a godless person who lives in or near Madison, we can probably arrange a meetup too - but see my earlier parenthesis about supporting the FFRF!

July 11, 2010, 6:36 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink3 comments
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Thoughts on the Occasion of My Marriage

If you're a regular reader, you probably know that I got married last month. Until now, I haven't said much about the event itself on Daylight Atheism. But now that I'm back from my honeymoon (slightly sunburned, but happy!) and I've had some time to reflect, I wanted to put into words some of my thoughts on what marriage means to me, as an atheist, and explain why I chose to enter into it.

But first of all, let me address the most obvious question: Should an atheist even want to get married? Isn't marriage an intrinsically religious ceremony? After all, weddings usually take place in churches (yes, ours was in a church) and are conducted by clergy (yes, we had a minister - more on this in a minute). Doesn't that mean that a committed atheist should refuse to enter into one?



I do acknowledge that, for most of Western history, marriage has been performed in a religious context. However, I don't concede that this makes it an intrinsically religious ceremony. Rather, it's because organized religion has always tried to take exclusive possession of whole areas of human life, and proclaim that it alone owns these experiences which are common to everyone. Just so in this case: marriage is fundamentally an expression of love, and religion doesn't have a monopoly on love. Atheists seek companionship, fall in love, and pledge our commitment just as theists do. Why, then, should we not mark the occasion with a marriage ceremony? Why not take the ritual, strip out the religious trappings we don't accept, and reclaim it as a secular, human rite of passage that nonbelievers also participate in?

And that's just what my wife and I did with our wedding. We planned the ceremony to match our beliefs, keeping the traditions we accept, omitting or changing the ones we didn't. We've been attending a Unitarian Universalist church for the past year, an entirely dogma-free religion that emphasizes ethics and community and has no requirement that its members believe in God or anything supernatural. The ceremony was at Shelter Rock, a huge, gorgeous UU congregation on the north shore of Long Island, and was performed by our minister, Hope, a wonderful woman whom both of us respect deeply.

So then, back to my original question: Why did I, as an atheist, choose to get married?

First, there are the practical reasons. It sounds tactless to mention, but I'd be lying if I said I never thought of it: Marriage isn't just a religious rite, but a civil ceremony that brings considerable civil and legal benefits, including many that are impossible to obtain any other way.

Of course, these protections are held out as an incentive to couples like us, even as they're denied to gays and lesbians. That these civil benefits are denied to mature, consenting same-sex couples due to religious prejudice is something both my wife and I feel passionately is a grave injustice. That's why we chose the following passage to be read at our wedding. It's an excerpt from Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, the case where the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to forbid marriage to same-sex couples. Even in the dispassionate language of the court, this ruling was full of poetry:



Marriage is a vital social institution. The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support; it brings stability to our society. For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits. In return it imposes weighty legal, financial, and social obligations.

The union of two people is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred. It is an association that promotes a way of life, not causes; a harmony in living, not political faiths; a bilateral loyalty, not commercial or social projects. Yet it is an association for as noble a purpose as any.

Without question, civil marriage enhances the welfare of the community and is a social institution of the highest importance. Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family. Because it fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven, and a connection to our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life's momentous acts of self-definition.

But there was more to my decision than this. Although the civil benefits of marriage are non-trivial, even without them we would have gotten married anyway, and the last paragraph of that ruling hints at why.

I said that atheists feel love just like everyone else, but I want to say more than that. I believe that love is the quintessential human emotion, the one that most truly defines us, that inspires all our noblest endeavors, and that gives expression to what is best in humanity. But love, by its nature, demands to be shared. If kept secret, it stagnates into mere obsession; but if shared with others, it is multiplied. Like one candle lighting others, it spreads without diminishing its source, and brings greater joy to every person who partakes of it than any of them could have had alone.



This reasoning is both why I got married in the first place, and also why we had a ritual to mark the occasion. I believe that life's challenges are better confronted together, rather than alone, and a two-person partnership is the simplest and most stable way to accomplish that.

At the most fundamental, our marriage isn't a civil ceremony or a religious rite, but a mutual obligation, a promise given freely and in awareness of its weight and solemnity. We pledged to make our partnership an enduring one, to remain faithful and true to each other, to share our happiness and support each other in times of trouble. And it makes this pledge all the more weighty that we made it not to each other in private, but before our gathered family, friends, and loved ones. We invited them to be there because we wanted them to bear witness to our decision, but also because we wanted to share our joy with them!

My wife and I have both found much good in our partnership: we complement each other's strengths, we comfort each other in times of pain and sorrow, we challenge each other to grow and mature, and we've each found that the things we love separately are even sweeter when shared. And that, more than any other reason, is why an atheist like me got married: because when you're in love, you want to tell the world.

And it's in that spirit that I'll close out this post. We wrote our own vows for the ceremony, and if you'll forgive me, I'd like to share mine:

Dear MissCherryPi,

Before we say our vows, I want to tell you why I'm here today.

You know that there are some things I don't believe in. But today, I want to tell you about some things I do believe in.

I believe in sunrises and sunsets.

I believe in hikes in the woods and walks on the beach.

I believe in traveling the world and exploring places we've never been before.

I believe in good books, good conversation and laughing at shared jokes.

I believe in picking pumpkins in autumn, decorating the tree for Christmas and drinking champagne on New Year's.

I believe in watching fireflies on summer evenings and stargazing on dark clear nights.

I believe in all the beauty, the mystery and the wonder of life, and I believe that these joys, like all joys, are multiplied when you have someone to share them with. And I'm here because I want you to be that person.

There's no one else I'd rather spend my life with. I love your shy smile, your sweet laugh, your sense of humor, and your adventurousness. And most of all, I love the way you make me happier than I thought anyone ever could. That's why I'm here, and that's why I'm marrying you today.

June 23, 2010, 5:52 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink57 comments
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I Have Returned

Hi everyone,

As of today, I'm back from my honeymoon and ready to take the reins once again. My special thanks to Ritchie, SuperHappyJen, Teleprompter and Thumpalumpacus for taking over administrative duties while I was away. It looks as if Daylight Atheism has been thriving without me, so much so that I didn't even feel the need to put up any of the posts I had written in advance. My guest editors are threatening to put me out of a job!

In all seriousness, I'm very pleased by the job they've done, and you may see more posts from them in the future if they're willing. But for now, I'm feeling quite revitalized and eager to get back to writing. Onward!

May 28, 2010, 11:25 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink11 comments
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