Monday, 30 May 2011

Approaching Mockery from Atheists

The tiny part of the atheist blogosphere that I read has in the last few months been abuzz on the topic of mockery: (when/how) should atheists mock religious people's beliefs? I refer specifically to Leah's posts (here and here to get started) at Daylight Atheism, but Leah has taken a look at in on her own blog and it seems to be a topic that recurs in other forums. In light of this, I thought I'd share some thoughts on the matter as a Christian who responds to such mockery. Namely, how might a Christian respond to offensive atheist comments constructively?

My immediate response to comments designed to mock my religious beliefs is to feel hurt and exposed. This undergoes a rapid transformation into defensiveness; at least in my head, I try to demonstrate why this mockery is misplaced and misleading, why it is not a valid threat to my beliefs. Often it's easy to do, since most mockery is not especially well informed or actually threatens a specific view that I, in my very mere Christianity, do not hold. Sometimes it's more difficult, but it has always been possible. Sometimes, but not often, I get quite angry. This is usually in response to the worst kinds of attack, like desecration or threats.

For my part, at least, this mockery does not "shock" me from my complacency, get me to think, or make me realize that I can question religious authority. I am not complacent, I am already thinking, and I've known for some time that you can get away with questioning religious authority. The net effect of these comments has usually been to make me sad or to make me despair of peace in this world. (I tend to melodrama.)

As a result I tend to think of these commenters as angry, irrational, arrogant, disrespectful, and destructive. Angry because I can only imagine that such a wilful desire to hurt is born from some anger, either an open flash or a deep grudge. Irrational because the obvious emotion behind the comment undermines any claims to reasoned argument. The frequently obvious fallacies in the mockery support this assumption. (Some comments are not obviously off the mark, and this is important to acknowledge). Arrogant because the commenters often don't see that they are committing exactly the sorts of intellectual or relational snobbery that they mock in Christians. Disrespectful because the hurt they inflict seems obvious to me and they therefore seem to want to do nothing but hurt others. (I realize, upon reading the comments on Leah's guest posts at Daylight Atheism, that they have a list of reasons to mock; I am not quite sold that these are anything but rationalizations of a strictly emotional response, but let's take these as valid reasons for the moment. I'm not claiming these are disrespectful of Christian people but rather I'm claiming that I feel they are so when I first respond to them.) And destructive because the commenters are obviously not contributing to cooperation between Christians and atheists but rather creating rifts, a destructive act.

I think this is a fairly standard litany of Christian (or otherwise religious) responses to atheist mockery of religion. The next step, usually, is to respond in kind: ordinarily when we react to mockery we are at least one of angry, irrational, arrogant, disrespectful, and destrutcive, and visibly so. Sadly, this not only prevents us from actually addressing the mockery at hand, but also leads us to fail as Christians. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount was not, after all, a lesson in polemics (though Jesus did have some fairly strong invectives for unforgiving religious leaders). The move from our own hurt and our own ad hominem assessment of the commenter to a counter-attack is, I think, misguided. Rather, I think we need to spend some time getting past the adjectives I just laid out.

In my experience (limited, I admit, to twenty and some years as just one person, mainly in Canadian academia), this kind of mockery does not merely produce hurt but comes from hurt. That is, people act angrily and irrationally when they feel under attack somehow. I'm not saying that all atheist criticism of religion is emotionally driven; to do so would be to undermine some very fair critiques. I do, however, suggest that a lot of mockery is to some extent a result of real or perceived greivances that the commenters hold. As a result, I think that when we experience mockery of our practices, beliefs, and selves, we ought to consider what wounds this anger might come from. We should also consider whether we helped inflict those wounds. I have (after far too long) come to realize that in some parts of the world it is very unpleasant to be an atheist; seclusion in Canadian universities, where atheism seems to be the norm and is sometimes openly supported by professors, has blinded me to the fact that atheists receive real discrimnation in much of the world, including those centres which seem to produce lots of contemporary media (the southern US, for instance). It was not until I came to recognize the wounds which fuel much of the mockery that I realized this.

Addressing the content of the mockery is trickier. Sometimes it is unrelated to those wounds, where the commenter is angry at all of religion and lashes out at whatever is closest to hand. (And even in these cases, the content of the mockery might still be accurate.) Sometimes, though, it is directly related to past greivances. (So, for instance, someone making jokes about the Rapture probably wasn't hurt by Rapture-related beliefs. Someone making getting angry about oppression of LGTB peoples might have been hurt by the related religious beliefs and practices.) Discerning this distinction is probably impossible, but it's something to think over. If you figure out what those wounds are, however, one of the best responses I can think of is how to prevent further unnecessary hurt.

A few further thoughts:

1) Don't join mockery. This should be obvious, but if a group of people are mocking Mormons, don't jump on board. Recognize how you react when atheists (or whoever) mock you. Just because you think you're right doesn't give you license to act like a snob. All snobs, even the wrong ones, think that they're right. (Here's a good talk to listen to when you're sure you're right.) And full disclosure: I'm not always good at this. I might sometimes pick on the Raƫlians. Some time I decided not to, and so far it's going well.

2) I imagine that some atheists reading this (if there are any) might take this as an encouragement to continue mocking as a means of calling attention to their own greivances. I want to be clear: I am not condoning mockery. I think it's entirely unhelpful and morally wrong. But I will observe that it took a lot of mockery before I realized that mockery can reveal legitimate greivances that I must address. This means that so long as we continue hurting others, mockery may have some utility. Let's, as Christians, listen well enough that in future atheists do not need to resort to mockery to be heard. Some of us are already starting to do that; as expected, Dr. Richard Beck is who I'll link to, specifically this article (you'll need to read through to near the end to see him discuss poor Christian PR).

3) There are contextual isses that I should address. Mockery from friends is often different from mockery on-line. You'll notice reading through that I assume mockery from on-line sources. The benefit to this is that it allows some access to more distant regions and demographics. The trouble, however, is the callousness that Internet anonymity allows. Mockery from friends (or family or coworkers or classmates) is personal: it has potentially more painful barbs, but knowledge of the person and their intentions allows you to understand their mockery and discuss it with them more knowledgably. I have trouble with both, but the personal form is more difficult for me to manage and I find it more personally damaging. (I'll link again to Dr. Beck.)

1 comment:

Madame Rubies said...

Great post. I think, sometimes, people think they are making a joke, but bitterness seeps in and turns a mocking tone.

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