Last week I wrote “Laughing at Fundamentalists” in critique of those who would propose to mock certain groups. (Of course to mock a group it is best to label them first and “Fundamentalist” is as good a label as any.)
In response I received the following comment from The Atheist Missionary:
“I’ve always taken the position that people are deserving of respect but their beliefs are not necessarily so deserving.
“I consider those who honestly believe that a snake ever spoke to be worthy of ridicule for holding that belief. Why? Because the belief is ridiculous and therefore, by definition, worthy of ridicule. I’ll give a few examples:
“1. I believe that I am the reincarnation of Marcus Aurelius.
“2. I believe that the world was created at 6 a.m. this morning (just prior to my arrival at Tim Horton’s) and all of my memories were implanted at that time.
“3. I believe that I used to be able to walk on water (for some strange reason, I have now lost that ability).
“4. I believe that the Smurfs are real, live in my basement and whisper to me in the early hours of the morning.
“This post as suggests that ridiculing ridiculous beliefs is “stupid and reprehensible” because it will “ostracize certain people, … stigmatize them socially, … instigate hatred and disdain of them“. If I am interpreting this claim correctly, it means that a group of people should be immune from ridicule regardless of the content of their beliefs as long as a sufficient number of them share that belief, no matter how ridiculous the content of those beliefs. If I have overstated the maxim, please set me straight.”
As I read TAM, he is saying that we shouldn’t mock people (since they are “deserving of respect”), but we ought to mock at least some beliefs held by certain people. But how would that work? How would one go about mocking a person’s beliefs without mocking the person holding the beliefs?
“You believe you’re the reincarnation of Marcus Aurelius? Haw haw haw! What an idiotic belief! Of course, I respect you as an individual, but that belief of yours is completely retarded!”
That doesn’t seem to work. As best I can see, you can’t ridicule a belief without ridiculing the person who holds the belief. If TAM disagrees, he can explain how that works exactly. But as best I can see, the most one can offer is the prospect of ridiculing a belief held by a person when the person who holds the belief is not around. But in that case you’re still ridiculing the person by ridiculing the belief they hold. You’re simply doing it behind their back.
So now let’s consider how I would react to individuals who held beliefs like (1)-(4). Perhaps TAM thinks these beliefs are ripe to be mocked (assuming he can sort out the distinction between mocking beliefs but not the people who hold them). But my response is very different. To be sure, if I met folks who held these beliefs I’d be surprised. But I wouldn’t be predisposed to mock. Instead, I’d like to find out why they held their beliefs. I’d look to get the back story. And I can guarantee that once I found out all the factors behind their adoption of that belief, I would be even less likely to mock.
For example, let’s say somebody tells me he believes he is the reincarnation of Marcus Aurelius because a medium at a carnival told him so after he paid the medium $50. My initial response would probably be compassion at the credulity of this individual. And I’d ask myself questions like this: “How could he fall for that?” But I wouldn’t ask those questions for long before I’d be feeling some empathy, reflecting on times when I too was duped. I could think back to the time when I bought into a pyramid scheme while in high school. Or the time when I spent more than a hundred bucks on a speed reading program after watching an infomercial. Who among us has not been taken in by a slick salesman at some point in our lives?
How about the belief about Smurfs? Well let’s say that after some further discussion I find that this gentleman has struggled all his life with schizophrenia and he hasn’t been taking his medication of late. So should I mock this person? Should I mock his belief? I find the very suggestion sickening.
And what if he invites me into his basement and we sit there in the darkness. Suddenly I see a flash of blue and hear a whisper. “Papa Smurf,” I say astonished, “Is it really you?” Unlikely, to be sure. But let us not overlook at least the possibility that in some cases things that strike us as crazy may just be true. (How many English naturalists mocked the first descriptions of the platypus filtering out of Australia?)
So we have compassion, empathy, and the possibility that the rare instance of outrageous belief may just be true. Where’s the place for mocking?
To be frank, at this point it is fair game to turn attention toward the mocker to ask him: Why do you feel the need to mock others? Are you insecure? Do you need to reassure yourself of your self-worth by tearing others down?
Let’s turn back to the discussion thread from last week. After reading The Atheist Missionary’s comments I replied:
“look at the examples you give, Smurfs and the like. That shows your own disappointing but persistent penchant to caricature the views of others with silly sidebar examples.”
And that’s when The Atheist Missionary got serious by graduating to critiques of the beliefs held by some Christians:
“First of all, let’s observe that all of the above noted beliefs are harmless. However, if I arrived at my local psychiatric ward and shared any of these beliefs with the attending physician, the odds are that I would not be leaving anytime soon. That being said, people can profess to believe that snakes talk, a virgin gave birth and zombies traipsed through Jerusalem without any fear of being diagnosed as psychiatrically infirm.
“Let’s not use caricatures. Let’s use an actual example; the belief that a snake spoke to a person. In your opinion, is that belief ridiculous (defined as “deserving or inviting derision or mockery; absurd.”)? If not, please explain why not and describe some beliefs that you would be willing to define as ridiculous. Thanks.”
Okay, let’s focus on The Atheist Missionary’s concrete example, the belief that a snake spoke to a person. I assume he is not thinking of just any old snake, but rather the fall narrative of Genesis 3 which begins like this:
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?'”
Many Christians have read this as (i) a literal description of past events and as (ii) a true description, from which they have concluded that a snake spoke to a person. Should these people be mocked as a result? Clearly not. In the worst possible cases I noted above, including undue credulity and mental illness, it isn’t appropriate to mock. So we’ve already addressed TAM’s question.
But let’s linger on the point for a bit longer. The first thing we have to recognize is that folks only accept (i) and (ii) relative to a background plausibility framework. That framework includes a commitment to theistic supernaturalism, the authority of certain teachers/educators within their community, a commitment to the inspiration of scripture, and a particular hermeneutic of scripture. Relative to that background set of beliefs it makes sense that a person would come to hold (i) and (ii).
This brings us to an important point. A person can always isolate a belief from the background plausibility framework within which that belief is held. Doing so will often make the belief look bizarre. But when we take the time to consider the background set of beliefs that condition the adoption of this belief one will come to realize that it is not that crazy after all. (It should be emphasized that to say a belief is crazy is not to say you would accept that belief! It is only to say that you can see how other people, given other circumstances, could come to hold that belief.)
Consider, for example, the claim of the ethical relativist that “The Holocaust is evil” is not an objective fact but rather is a fact only relative to some belief communities. This strikes me not only as false but (at first blush) as completely crazy as well. Surely any rational, properly functioning person knows that the Holocaust was an objective evil. Thus, even if the Nazis had won the war and the world came to agree with the moral propriety of the Final Solution, the Holocaust still would have been a moral horror. This is, to my mind, obviously true. And yet the ethical relativist disagrees.
But I don’t respond by mocking the ethical relativist. Rather, I strive to understand the plausibility framework within which the ethical relativist believes such a claim is not only plausible but true. And as I come to understand that plausibility framework I recognize new ways to engage critically with the ethical relativist.
Needless to say, the same principle applies to Christians who accept (i) and (ii). If you mock them you just make yourself look like an insecure fool. The key is to understand and then engage critically and with charity.
Finally, let’s note that (ii) is dependent on (i). That is, the belief that a snake spoke is contingent on the assumption that Genesis 3 is intended to provide a literal description of past events (not unlike reading a newspaper account). And now I note the final irony: most of the atheists who propose mocking some Christians for holding (ii) themselves hold (i). That is, those atheist mockers believe the text should properly be read as a literal description of past events. This I believe to be an errant (and naïve) reading of an ancient near eastern cosmogonic creation narrative. But my response is not to mock the atheist for approaching Genesis 3 in this manner. Instead, I offer an invitation to the atheist to become better educated in how to read ancient near eastern documents, particularly before he starts mocking others.
Now for one footnote. I can’t help but note that I wrote an entire book on this topic called You’re not as Crazy as I Think. And when it came out two years ago The Atheist Missionary was one of the book’s biggest fans. See, for example, his review here. As a result, it is a matter of some disappointment to me that he continues to take such an uncharitable view toward engagement with others.