Ridicule and Mockery …

So, Daniel Fincke over a Camels With Hammers is defending Richard Dawkins’ Reason Rally speech calling for ridicule and mockery of “absurd” religious beliefs, like transubstantiation. There’s a lot to say about this post, but let’s start at the beginning where Fincke essentially tries to explain what Dawkins is really saying:

First of all, these criticisms of Dawkins lazily and unreasonably ignore the actual rationale that he gave for specifically raising the issue of transubstantiation. It was actually not to make the believer feel stupid for believing such nonsense. Dawkins explicitly expressed doubt that the majority of nominally believing people really do believe such absurdities. He did not impugn their intelligence but rather he actually assumed they were smarter than their supposed beliefs. He was calling atheists to challenge nominal Catholics to confront the dissonance between what they actually believe and the Catholicism they often only passively belong to.

Dawkins seems to accept this in a comment on a post at RichardDawkins.net:

I am extremely pleased by Daniel Fincke’s article, which says exactly what I SHOULD have said and, to my regret, didn’t make sufficiently clear in my Reason Rally speech. The best way to summarise it would be to modify the quotation from Johann Hari. Johann said, “I respect you too much to respect your ridiculous beliefs”. From now on, my version will be, “I respect you too much to accept that you really believe anything so ridiculous as you claim. Please either defend those beliefs and explain why they are not ridiculous, or else declare that you do not hold them and publicly disown the church to which you claim loyalty.”

Politicians who curry favour with voters by claiming religious affiliation should learn the downside of such self-serving claims. They should be made to defend, in public, the ridiculous beliefs of the religion to which they pretend loyalty.

The big problem with this is that it doesn’t fit with at least part of Dawkins’ defense of his own remark on Chris Hayes’ MSNBC show, which I found from Jerry Coyne’s site. Here, Dawkins talks a lot about ridiculing and mocking the beliefs that politicians actually have, and noting that they do indeed actually believe this. He talks about this being meaningful, mostly in reply to Hayes’ continual comments that whether they believe this or not isn’t relevant because it isn’t relevant to their political actions. Contrast this to Fincke’s comment and Dawkins’ acceptance of that comment, where it seems it’s about proving that people and politicians don’t actually share that belief and so shouldn’t use an identity they don’t actually have to garner votes. Although, of course, that’s very common in politics, even for those who aren’t religious, so it does raise the question of why the religious are getting singled out here. After all, while Sarah Palin, for example, did try to appeal in some way to religion, her biggest move was to associate herself with the average, everyday, hockey mom. Presumably Fincke and Dawkins consider this just as bad?

I wouldn’t have talked a lot about how common pandering to and pretending to be part of a group to get votes is in politics except that I think that this is critical to understanding the contradiction here. Dawkins is unapologetic about disliking religion and wanting all religious beliefs to go away, to be replaced by something more “rational”. He also, clearly, finds a number of religious beliefs absurd, if not all religious beliefs. When you find beliefs absurd, your natural tendency is to want to mock them. This is especially the case if you want people to stop believing them and especially acting on them. But Dawkins, deep down, knows that mockery and ridicule for the sake of mockery and ridicule isn’t very nice, and he wants to be at least generally nice. This creates in him a cognitive dissonance: these beliefs deserve to be mocked, but mocking isn’t rational and isn’t nice. So, what he does is rationalize it like so many of the Gnu Atheists, and argue that he really ought to mock because there’s a good reason to mock; these beliefs are harmful or are causing problems and the only way to settle this is by mocking and ridiculing them. Thus, he gets to have his cake and eat it too; he gets to mock and ridicule to his heart’s content safe and secure in his belief that he’s really doing the good and moral thing in eliminating these beliefs.

This is why he can say without at least seeing a contradiction that we both need to mock and ridicule these beliefs to settle who really believes them, and that we need to mock and ridicule these beliefs and demand that politicians defend them if they really do believe them. He sets up a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation here. If you don’t believe these absurd beliefs, then you shouldn’t really call yourself a Catholic or religious, but instead an atheist, and count on his side. If you do, then you should be mocked and ridiculed for holding irrational beliefs, and your fitness to run for office should be questioned. The only thing in common here is that the beliefs are absurd and should be mocked and ridiculed and so it’s hard not to see these supposed benefits as nothing more than just gravy to Dawkins.

And the problems with this idea go beyond that, because Dawkins certainly is not selecting these beliefs based on how fundamental they are to the religion, but based on how easily he thinks they can be mocked. Fincke comments in his post that how the religious should respond to these challenges is to demonstrate that these beliefs aren’t fundamental to the relevant religious identity. I replied to that in a comment there, sadly unacknowledged:

And so I can actually answer this by simply asking two related questions:

1) If the Catholic Church decided through all of its relevant mechanisms that they were wrong about transubstantiation and that the Eucharist is to be taken symbolically, would we have any cause to say that the Catholic Church was no longer the Catholic Church?

2) If transubstantiation was proven to be a matter of fact as opposed to faith, and the scientific studies were conclusive that the fact was not present, since it being a matter of fact and not faith would remove even papal infallibility claims, would that mean that the Catholic faith had been disproven?

The answer to these questions, it seems to me, is an unequivocable “No”. Which means, then, that transubstantiation, while a clear part of Catholic doctrine, is not, in fact, what it MEANS to be a Catholic, and so is not part of what defines one as Catholic. Because of this, it is quite possible to properly identify oneself as Catholic and disagree with it, just as one can disagree with, say, the stance on birth control and still be Catholic; what it means to be a Catholic does not depend on your stance on those issues.

Transubstantion is indeed part of Catholic doctrine, but it’s hardly what separates Catholics from other Christians fundamentally. Yes, Catholics believe that and other Christians don’t, but I doubt you’d find all that many Catholics who’d say that the belief in transubstantiation is what makes a Catholic a Catholic. Respect for the pope’s authority and that direct lineage, for example, is far more important, but also almost impossible to disprove. Heck, Dawkins could have used birth control as a better example of a piece of doctrine that Catholics generally don’t follow, even though that again wouldn’t be what identifies Catholics and Catholics. But no, instead of actually getting into the religion in detail and trying to figure out what it really means to be Catholic so that he can ask about that, Dawkins simply grabs the beliefs that he can mock the easiest and uses them … and then retreats to the “Do you really believe that? If you don’t, you can’t call yourself Catholic!” line when people wonder if he’s really after the mocking and not a real argument or discussion. I’m sorry, but if you choose the beliefs that are the easiest to mock rather than the ones that are more fundamental to the Catholic identity, it’s perfectly reasonable for people to conclude that the mockery seems more important than the identity argument.

Fincke goes on:

And, in fact, if Catholics had the slightest confidence in their more absurd teachings, they wouldn’t be threatened at all by the prospect of atheists routinely asking them (or their brethren) if they actually believed what Catholicism teaches. The response in all the Catholic articles about Dawkins should have read, “Professor Dawkins, I’ll answer your question: Yes! I believe in the true transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, and here’s why it’s more rational than not believing in it.” And they should have followed that up with triumphalist exhortations to fellow believers to proudly affirm their belief in it. And the bemoaners of “Cafeteria Catholicism” should have joined Dawkins in raising the bar on their fellow Catholics and said, “Either start accepting Church teachings or admit you’re an atheist like Professor Dawkins calls you to!”

No, the actual response should have been “Why should I? What is it to you if I accept this belief or not? Why is it that you can insist that if I don’t accept this thing that you’re calling absurd, then I shouldn’t call myself a Catholic, with the implied threat that if I do in fact admit it you’re going to call me irrational and keep mocking me and my beliefs? Why should I respond to you at all, if mockery is all I’ll get either way? Life’s too short for me to listen to mockery and ridicule all day.”

See, the fact that the bemoaners of “Cafeteria Catholicism” aren’t jumping all over these things now should have given Fincke a big hint that that’s because this specific doctrine isn’t all that important to Catholic identity. Engaging in actual sins as if they weren’t is, in fact, far more of an issue, and even that doesn’t reflect a rejection of Catholic identity. Here, what they do is in fact insist that religious people must justify their identity and their beliefs to their standards, or else that means something for those religious people. And the appropriate response to that really is “Why should I?”. No religious person owes any atheist an explanation or defense or justification for a belief or for their identity. Atheists can ask, but they cannot demand, and they certainly cannot demand this under the threat or auspices of ridicule and mockery and claim to be anything like rational. If atheists want to know what makes up Catholic identity and challenge those beliefs, they can do the research themselves and come up with a case for it, and not merely declare it absurd and demand that we defend it or else we must consider it absurd and thus ourselves no longer religious.

This is why birth control is a far better candidate. While Dawkins and Fincke may claim that they think that a lot of Catholics don’t really believe transubstantiation, they have actual statistical and thus likely scientific evidence that a lot of Catholics don’t at least follow the restrictions on birth control. It’s likely even far more than those who reject transubstantiation, just because most Catholics simply loosely believe transubstantiation and don’t really care about the details, so most Catholics will at best loosely accept it and at worst won’t care. Birth control is just more important and relevant in our everyday lives than transubstantiation. It’s just as fundamental if not more so than transubstantiation to Catholic doctrine. The only difference is that it isn’t as easy to mock with cute little comments like it being really cannibalism. Considering that, is it any wonder that I see this as being more about mockery than about real argument? When you choose the one that’s better for mockery but isn’t as good an argument, what else should I think?

So next, Fincke starts to get into more about how he wants believers to respond:

This was and still is a fine opening for the true defenders of reason to put the atheist pretender in his place. By all means, crack open the medieval philosophy texts and explain to us the metaphysical contortions that were used to justify this doctrine. Explain to us why these metaphysical categories are rationally necessary even today and show us how when they are applied in the most logical possible ways they make transubstantiation not only minimally reasonable but rationally compelling as most likely true. Educate us! Show us exactly why it is a respectable belief according to reason, and not just according to faith, and why Dawkins should be seen as a fool for thinking it so easily dismissable and contemptible for rational people to believe. I would love to read those retorts and luxuriate in the persuasive way they put us brash, ignorant unreasonable New Atheists in our place. Really, I love being disabused of errors. Use philosophy to show me we New Atheists are wrong and I will love the chance to show how willing I am to admit I am wrong in the face of an actually plausible argument. I can’t wait.

So, here’s the thing. The “brash, ignorant New Atheist” wanders in and starts harranguing a religious person about a specific belief and how absurd it is, without understanding or having read the works, and in Fincke’s case here starts by calling them contortions. They then demand that if we want to oppose that, we have to go through and do all of the work of reading the doctrines in detail and then summarizing that into an argument that they can understand. So, essentially, they feel free to make an unsupported assertion and then demand that we defeat it to their standards or else they’re right, noting that if they don’t consider it plausible they won’t have to admit anything. Since when is it in any way rational to toss out an unsupported assertion from a position of ignorance and demand that your opponents educate you?

Now, if done with the right tone as a genuine question and not as ridicule and mockery, this might not be an unreasonable demand, except for two slight problems:

1) These questions aren’t being asked of theologians, or even of people like me that have more of a philosophical background and so might a) already know these answers and b) are qualified to actually find the answers. No, these questions are being asked of everyday religious people, or of folk religion. Everyday religious people don’t know these details, and they don’t care about them enough to do this, in much the same way as everyday people who are not scientists don’t know the details of QM and everyday people who are mathematicians don’t know the details of number theory that allows them to prove that 1+1=2 in base 10. Thus, this demand is like going up to a person on the street, asking them if they really believe that QM events are uncaused, and then demanding that they demonstrate all the QM science that shows this to be true. They aren’t going to be able to do that, nor should we expect them to. QM scientists, of course, do know this, and so they are the ones that should be asked. In the same way, to get an answer to this question theologians should be asked, not people running for political office or the religious person on the street.

2) If even the theological and philosophically inclined try to do this, we’ll run straight into the “Courtier’s Reply”, arguing that the theology and philosophy just don’t matter. Fincke, I concede, is not exactly likely to use that reply to us … but Dawkins is. Why should we do that work only to have it be dismissed as not being what the “folk religionists” believe, as for example Jerry Coyne loves to argue?

Fincke also goes on to argue for a dichotomy, where the “true defenders of reason”, as he puts it, can’t make an argument that these things are believed on faith. The problem here is that the true defenders of reason can quite rightly reply that defending reason includes knowing reason’s limitations, and so that perhaps some propositions must be accepted on faith or not at all. Considering that, in fact, almost all of the people he’d be challenging believe on faith, removing faith from the picture just moves it even further from the group this mockery and ridicule is aimed at; you could aim this at people like me, that reject faith on some level, but not most actual religious people. So, forcing religious people to deny faith is acceptable and would still, in fact, mean that they still count as religious, even though having faith seems more fundamental to being religious than pretty much any of the listed beliefs?

The problem here is that Fincke is trying to set up the discussion in his terms, so that only the things that he and the New Atheists consider reasonable, plausible, and acceptable count. In that way, the discussion becomes all about justifying these beliefs to them and to their standards. But this biases the game far too much to their side, and away from what their opponents actually think and believe. The only rational response, then, is not to play; no one has any need to justify their beliefs by standards they do not hold. So, the right approach would indeed be to have an open dialogue about faith, reason and the beliefs, but you don’t get there by starting from “This belief is just absurd, and you have to prove to my standards that it isn’t or else it is.”

Or, if the transubstantiation is not rational but is yet also not a true litmus test for Catholicism, then by all means show us why the average Catholic should not be expected to hold that belief. Point out the places where popes, bishops or esteemed Catholic theologians repudiate literalism about the Eucharist. And then, if you can actually do that, go ahead and explain to us why it is horribly bad and demeaning for us atheists to disabuse the average Catholic of that belief when even some estimable, learned Catholics reject it!

So, I already did point out why this isn’t a true litmus test for Catholicism, although I didn’t have to appeal to theology, but simple philosophy. It simply is not the case that if you do not accept this that you aren’t Catholic, end of story. But this moves far beyond that. Everyone would agree that transubstantiation is a part of Catholic doctrine, which thus implies that if you are Catholic it would be a reasonable expectation that you hold it. This, then, is what all of the estimable, learned Catholics will say (or, rather, mostly what they will say). But, as pointed out, if a Catholic for whatever reason doubts or rejects that piece of doctrine, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t Catholics anymore, which you will recall was Fincke’s reason for bringing it up in the first place. Thus, we can explain to the New Atheist why it is horribly bad and demeaning for them to go out and try to disabuse the average Catholic of that belief by pointing out that they are doing that by defining it as absurd, insisting that it be proven reasonable to their standards before they’ll drop that definition, while at the same time the reason they claim to be doing that doesn’t actually apply to that belief. Thus, they are doing nothing more than ridiculing and mocking a belief in the hopes that people will simply drop it, which is hardly rational … and surely they’ll insist on acting rationally, right?

Or, if the belief is a rational litmus test for Catholic belief and it is not defensible on rational grounds but only on dogmatic ones, then explain to us in detail why true defenders of reason prove themselves by their willingness to make beliefs that are not grounded in reason immune to the criticism and ridicule that might help people abandon their unsupported beliefs.

Because virtually all religious people will say that reason — or, at least, scientific reason — is not the be-all-and-end-all of action and that sometimes you need to accept on the basis of faith and faith alone, which may not count as “rational”, depending on how that’s defined. The New Atheists claim to be “rationalists”, and argue that all of our beliefs should be based on strict reason as they define it. For Fincke here to say that they should not object to the New Atheists using irrational methods to convert beliefs seems contradictory, as it seems to be him asking for permission for those who think that no belief should be formed irrationally to reject their own standards and use irrational means. Again, their opponents are not the ones insisting on strict reason; the New Atheists are. It would be nice, then, if they’d stick to their own standards, or else admit that the standards they are setting are too stringent for even them to follow.

And while you are at it, columnists and bloggers, show consistent adherence to your newfound principle that forbids all use of mockery in political and philosophical polemics. Please swear off all future uses of reductio ad absurdum, sarcasm, or any other rhetorical devices for highlighting irrationality in the positions of politicians and other public figures or movements you criticize henceforth. Retract all use of humor or confrontational language in your past writings. Call for political satirists to be thrown off the air and off the internet as inimical to rational debate. Don’t be hypocrites! Stand up for a neutered form of reasoned argument that allows itself no contentiousness or laughter in the face of falseness!

To start with, as a minor quibble — but one that Fincke should himself know — reductio ad absurdum does not, in fact, relate to humour, ridicule or mockery at all. It relates to simply showing that the argument leads to a conclusion that no one, including the person making the argument, will accept. You don’t need to do any mockery at all, and it isn’t ridicule, and so it doesn’t fit here. But this highlights the issue that Fincke moves very quickly from talking about “mockery” to “highlighting irrationality”. They aren’t the same thing, at all, and Fincke really should know that. It’s appalling that he makes this move here, since the difference is something that he surely learned in his many years doing philosophy.

And this problem carries on throughout his objection. Few people are insisting on retracting all use of humour or even confrontational language, or even ridicule and mockery. Most will accept the occasional use of, say, sarcasm or satire as a stylistic device, which might make the article more interesting to read or provide emphasis for a point. Most will also accept the occasional use of mockery or ridicule as a “Look, I’m human and sometimes I get mad and need to rant a bit. I try not to, but I’m not going to be perfect”. But that’s not what Dawkins is suggesting. Dawkins is suggesting the use of mockery and ridicule as a planned strategic move, and seemingly a primary one. Objecting to the use of mockery and ridicule as a conversion strategy does not, in fact, mean that it must be eliminated completely, but it surely is not unreasonable to point out that mockery and ridicule as a conversion strategy is not in fact a strategy that changes beliefs by appealing to reason, which means that they are contradicting their only standards and are doing so in a way where mockery and ridicule is placed above reason and argumentation. Again, their strategy is to mock and ridicule, not argue. For the other cases I cited, the argument comes first and the humour is either admittedly completely independent of it or is at best in service to it. Dawkins sounds like he’s saying that the ridicule and mockery is the main strategy here, and is the main way he wants to convert people or convince them of … something, as it isn’t clear what. Or, alternatively, Dawkins wants other people to laugh at these beliefs, and in some sense the people who hold them. Either way, this is looking a lot more like bullying than like reasonable philosophical discussion.

And if you believe that all criticisms of the contents of beliefs is demeaning to one’s opponents’ dignity, then stop demeaning all of us atheists by implying, or even stating, that our beliefs are false. You’re demeaning us!!

And who thinks that? Does Fincke think that ridicule and mockery make up all possible ways to criticize the contents of beliefs? The most we get is that you shouldn’t criticize the contents of beliefs when they aren’t relevant to the matter at hand, which only means that you have to avoid using argument ad hominem. You can indeed criticize beliefs, but mockery and ridicule is not, in fact, rational criticism. Arguments are rational criticism, and while some may indeed consider any challenge to be actual mockery and ridicule, you don’t get to defend someone who calls for actual mockery and ridicule by saying that he really just means criticism. Considering that Dawkins clearly speaks the English language, it’s just a tad incredible that he wouldn’t know the difference in meaning between the word “mockery” and the word “criticism”, thus he’s clearly advocating the former and not the latter. Or, alternatively, he’s just spouting rhetoric without any rational backing. Neither is good for someone who’s supposed to be insisting that everyone has to be rational.

And if you think that we are only targeting the transubstantiation because it is low hanging fruit, i.e., an obvious absurdity much easier to defeat than the tougher question of the existence of God, then I will make you a deal on behalf of all New Atheists everywhere. (I know what you’re thinking—how can he dare to consider himself authorized to speak for all New Atheists everywhere. Just keep reading and you’ll see! I doubt any New Atheists won’t sign up for this deal. Link me to any articles wherein they do!) As soon as all religious people stop believing in and promulgating beliefs that are easy to refute or expose as false, we will all stop refuting those beliefs and stop exposing them as false. We will throw them on the ash heap of history with the Greek gods and think of them as a waste of time to worry about refuting. I promise.

But for as long as millions of socially and politically empowered people either believe, or at least claim to believe, absurdities, we have every right and responsibility to debunk those absurdities, no matter how easy that is to do or how politically disruptive to your ends it might be for us to do it.

Well, the problem here is that after the rest of my analysis the question is: Why do you care? After all, there are lots of absurdities out there, and not just religious ones. In fact, you may hold absurdities yourself … or, at least, things that other people would call absurd that you think fine. Are you really going to dedicate your life to eliminating all absurd beliefs in all people? Or do you consider religious beliefs or those that are called “woo” special, and especially bad? When you could make a claim that you were going after something critical to Catholic identity, you almost had a point. But now that you can’t, and since it’s clear that transubstantiation is not a belief that generally has a great impact on anyone’s actions, political or not, what is the point in going after it? Go after birth control, if you must, although again that’s harder to call absurd. Or go after actual beliefs that do form the Catholic identity as opposed to merely being about the Catholic doctrine. Again, it’s really hard not to think that transubstantiation is being targetted because it’s easy to mock, which means that yes, indeed, it’s being chosen because it’s low-hanging fruit … or, to put it better, that it’s something that Dawkins and Fincke find particularly absurd. Which brings us right back to “You’re doing this because you want to mock it and need a reason to feel that you aren’t just mocking, but are doing something important.”

Now, if you cannot agree to any of the above, then you can just admit that you want to give religious beliefs special privileged exemptions from criticism and/or you want to smear outspoken atheists, all out of either (a) your personal irrational unwillingness to have your own religious beliefs scrutinized rationally or (b) your elitist desire to patronize religious believers who you think are well-meaning benighted boobs that are both intellectually beneath refutation and way too useful for political purposes you support.

Those are your choices. Which do you agree to?

Potentially, none, because Fincke unreasonably limits the choices. I, personally, have no problem with rational criticism and argumentation. I have a problem with the use of mockery, derision and ridicule as admitted strategies in trying to get people to change their beliefs, and I have an especial problem with it from people who insist that all such things must be rational. I do not, in fact, single out religious beliefs in this, but hold that for all beliefs; I will not try to convince by mockery, but by argument. If Dawkins and Fincke agree with this and are willing to try to convince me by argument, I’m willing to listen to their criticisms. If they are not, then I really see no reason to listen to what they have to say, or justify myself to them. So, then, here are their choices: engage in rational argumentation and discussion like they insist they want, or spend their time mocking and ridiculing and being called out for it. Which will they choose?

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