Why do atheists ridicule religion?

  (04 March 12)
  by Greg Spearritt

Why, asks Steve Kryger in The Punch, does the 2012 Global Atheist Convention (GAC) have comedians constituting nearly a third of its speakers? Why must these atheists poke fun at religion? At the Christian conferences Steve goes to they apparently don’t spend time ridiculing atheism.

As one who attended the last (and inaugural) Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, I have to say there was a fair sprinkling of unfunny cheap shots at religion and put-downs of religious people, and one particularly obscene harangue which someone must have mistakenly thought could be classed as comedy. But there were also many well-considered, sober presentations; instances of speakers (notably Phillip Adams and Richard Dawkins) clearly giving appropriate respect to religion and religious people; and some clever and truly funny satire concerning religious themes and people.

I see three reasons why humour is so central to the atheist movement at this time.

First, humour is subversive. Although our society and political institutions are secular and even among Australians who self-identify as ‘religious’ barely a third are significantly involved in group religious practice (see here), religion retains its old public privileges. Churches don’t pay rates or taxes. They have legal access to public schools and cheerfully send people with no theological training or knowledge of other religious traditions to impose their naïve, uninformed views on unsuspecting school children, a system parents have to opt out of. Although we currently have an atheist as Prime Minister, daily sittings of Parliament begin with prayer.

So religion is still the default, long after most Australians have ceased to take it seriously. (If you doubt this last statement, see how many children of clergy you know regularly attend church or resist the urge to ‘shack up’ before marriage.) The atheist is still the underdog, still discriminated against in so many ways by the system. Humour as subversion is necessary in such a situation: it’s an effective way of jolting people out of the pro-religious assumptions that saturate our society.

Second, religion throws up a great deal that is truly laughable. A few recent examples:

Pastor Danny Nalliah (see here and here) is the poster-boy of what’s screwy about religion in Australia, but he’s certainly not alone. From the God-leads-to-success Hillsong Church to Catholic spies to the cringe-worthy and outrageously unoriginal slogan with its greengrocer’s apostrophe on the billboard outside your local church, there’s a lot to laugh at.

Not laughing when someone says or does something really wacky is doing no-one a favour. If the Emperor is standing there buck-naked, it doesn’t benefit him or anyone else to go around pretending he’s in his regal finery. That path leads to gullibility, fraud and abuse. Thinking critically is key to avoiding abuse of power and undue influence, and humour (as noted above) is an effective strategy in debunking such pretentiousness.

Third, humour is fun. To be sure, a part of the protest against religion is in deadly earnest, as it should be. There’s the abuse and distress occasioned by some religious thought and practice (the demeaning of women; priestly abuse of children; tearing of new-borns away from unwed mothers; imposition of guilt over normal human behaviours such as homosexuality and masturbation and so on and so on). And there’s the privileging of religious ideas and groups that makes little sense in an egalitarian society and a secular age (churches not having to pay their way on rates and taxes; entrenched privilege in private church schools which are in part publicly-funded; religious indoctrination, but not education, allowed in public schools; and much more). But many atheists think critically; perhaps they’re more prone than some religious folk to see the funny side of things. Like anyone, religious or not, they enjoy laughing.   

Two questions.   

Does the atheist movement in its piss-take on religion do justice to the breadth of religious thought and practice? Answer: no. Phillip Adams argued at the last GAC that atheists and religious folk need to get along when their agendas coincide (as often they do, especially on issues of social justice), but more than a few voices at the convention abjectly failed to recognise that some good things are achieved by religion or to acknowledge that there’s a range of sophisticated theological thought out there in believer-land. It’s far easier to laugh at Danny Nalliah or Archbishops Pell or Jensen than to deal with the subtle and mild-to-moderately progressive views of Fr Frank Brennan, erstwhile Toowoomba Catholic Bishop William Morris or the Rev'd Drs Stephen Ogden and Gregory Jenks of St Francis Theological College in Brisbane.

Are people deserving of respect even when they believe wacky things? There’s certainly some belittling and ridicule in the atheist impulse to laugh at religion.

My answer: it depends. If the wackiness results in harm, then probably not. I can’t find it in me, for example, to respect those currently in Afghanistan calling for (or causing) bloodshed because a book got inadvertently burned. On the other hand, a belief in the literal resurrection of Christ while in itself (in my view) silly, doesn’t necessarily cause the believer to go out and hurt people. Mind you, I wouldn’t respect those who hold this view because they hold it: indeed, there are aspects of their ability to reason that I could not respect.

I do hope, once the atheist movement in Australia has had time to mature and begins to see itself as on a more even footing with religion, that it will tone down the ridicule and begin to laugh at itself a little more. In the meantime, I say: bring on the jokes. I’m looking forward to a few good laughs at GAC mark II.




A couple of things I want to say. One is that there are evil people in both religious and atheistic groups/ churches etc., unfortunately. These people look authentic but they are anything but authentic. They go into religious organizations of whatever type, not only Christian and they look to do things that give religion a bad name. They want to cause people to doubt and those that are undecided to question if there is a God rather than investigate with an open mind. As for Dawkins he is walking on egg shells because more and more is coming out of modern physics that at the very least proves that materialism is not all that there is. This means that his position both as an atheist and as a Darwinist is thrown into question and he can't answer the hard questions. A few months back I had joined his forum and I only lasted a little over 24hours. Why did I get banned? Because I am bringing forth information/ evidence really when others check it for themselves, that cancer is the result of changes in the cells genetic structure that are not mutations but purposefull changes. (see here https://kyrani99.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/cancer-is-a-paper-tiger/ where I have started to post on this subject) Instead of being prepared to put their theories to the acid test they banned me from their site and they did it with a great deal of meanness. They set forth question that I could answer very satisfyingly but they cut me off before I could post anything. What they are really doing is showing that they are not sure of themselves at all. So no matter the riddicule now, who's going to be laughing later?

Posted by Kyrani99

Hi again Jebus. I confess I'm not sure what to make of the claim that every system of belief is ultimately faith-based. I suppose the Enlightenment with its emphasis on empiricism was, in truth, a cultural movement rather than a stripping back of culture to the way things really are. There is no escaping culture. So yes, the superiority of logical argument and reliance on evidence cannot be logically established. It can be shown to be effective, however: contemporary science, for example, (and notably medical science) has had a huge positive impact on people's well-being. Argument and evidence in the area of religious belief (or non-belief) are particularly convoluted, of course. I submit the startling view of conservative commentator Greg Sheridan concerning the recent TV debate between Richard Dawkins and Archbishop George Pell: Sheridan saw Pell essentially demolish Dawkins, and I was left wondering whether we were both watching the same event. I'd have called it pretty much the other way round. Clearly, belief, ideology, perhaps even questions of personal identity shape how we view things. Note that I'm not suggesting we give up on trying to look at things dispassionately, just that it seems damned hard to do. The Dawkins-Pell debate (a pathetic affair, really, with a complete lack of nuance in the discussion) can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tD1QHO_AVZA Sheridan's article is here: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/pells-performance-was-a-revelation/story-e6frg76f-1226324252055

Posted by Greg

Alom Shaha apparently takes a respectful approach to religion in The Young Atheist's Handbook: see http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/a-good-godless-life-20120309-1up7l.html

Posted by Greg

Eventually, the Atheist movement will divide between the militants and the moderates. Naturally, it is the extremists who grab the headlines. Within any particular main-stream church there is a range of opinion:- From Evangelical, through Conservative and Liberal in the middle, to Progressive at the other end. The Atheist "church" is no different.

Posted by David Miller

You also left out the fact that ridicule and abuse have always been the refuge of those who don't have an argument. Atheism has never been a very robust movement in terms of number and when one sees atheism as merely another faith-based belief system spruiking for the loyalty of followers then a lot of what gets said and done starts to become clear. Also you seem to fall into the same trap yourself by saying that the literal resurrection Christ is 'silly'. Despite the evidence and that the belief is held by many VERY intelligent people who can argue for their convictions without said ridicule and abuse you only make me think you are being kind of 'silly' yourself. But I'll never try and stifle your right to free speech. :)

Posted by Jebus

HI Greg, Thanks for the kind reply. Yes I agree with your point about humour. I came across a saying a while back that went along the lines of 'You can only satirise what you love' (I suspect it may have been in The Door. :) ) and I guess you've said the same thing here. The trouble with 'most' anti religious humour that I've seen is that the artist clearly has a very superficial understanding of the material and while that would appeal to others with a similar level of understanding it simply doesn't work for anyone with more knowledge of the subject. I suppose that's the way with any subject though and not just religion. There are, as you say, always exceptions and I do enjoy those rare events when they happen. Also please don't misinterpret my comment about atheism being a faith-based belief as an attack. While there may be some bits of evidence that lend support to the idea (though I'm not aware of any physical evidence just different ideas and philosophies?) I only meant that in the final wash EVERY belief system that I know of is ultimately faith-based, including atheism. I also agree that faith based belief doesn't rely on evidence, but only in a arch fideistic kind of way. I was assuming reasonable individuals and not unreasonable ones. :) As for the resurrection, this guy's done some good work: http://www.garyhabermas.com/ I haven't kept up with him in the last few years though, too much other stuff going on. And this book looks interesting as well, though I haven't read it yet. http://www.amazon.com/Historical-Argument-Resurrection-Controversy-Religion/dp/0889468117 Regards Jebus

Posted by Jebus

You're right, Jebus - ridicule can often take the place of argument. It's not always so, however. At the 2010 Global Atheist Convention some of the most effective argument was in fact in the form of well-informed satire and comedy. It's a way of making a point (and often a good way for the kinds of reasons I indicated); humour itself can therefore be argument, not just a substitute for it. The GAC, of course, also presented much conventional argument (some of it good in my view, and some questionable) for an atheistic view of the world. I acknowledge, further, that intelligence seems to have little to do with whether you believe in a literal resurrection. Being informed about the issue (an understanding of history, the nature of the relevant biblical texts, evidence etc) probably has more impact. As one who is moderately well-informed, I do indeed find the belief silly. There'll be some, as well or better informed than I, who find it plausible. I can live with that. If any of those people can show me information I don't have or give me particularly cogent arguments that support their view I'll change my mind. Which is why at least some atheism is not "merely another faith-based belief system spruiking for the loyalty of followers". Faith-based belief doesn't rely on evidence (or argument). As Tertullian said in his fracas with Marcion concerning the resurrection: "And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible." No amount of argument or evidence will shift such a view.

Posted by Greg

HI Greg, "The Dawkins-Pell debate (a pathetic affair, really, with a complete lack of nuance in the discussion)" On that point my friend we are in complete agreement. Of course I've noticed that Dawkins only takes on soft targets these days as his continued avoidance of a debate with William Lane-Craig demonstrates. There are some good (i.e. intellectually honest) atheist debaters out there, Dawkins and the rest of the 'celebrity' crowd aren't amongst them IMO. All I meant by my statement that "every system of belief is ultimately faith-based." Is that when those tools of rationality and evidence are employed in the endeavour of finding out 'what is true' there is only so far they can take you before you have to take a 'leap of faith' (not necessarily blind faith either I should add). So the Hindu can believe that all is Maya (illusion)and have good reasons to believe so but ultimately cannot prove or disprove it for the tools we would use to do such a thing would also be part of the illusion. The atheist as we both know (I hope :) )cannot disprove Gods existence they can only make observations in and about the universe with whatever technology we have at the time and make a conclusion based on that. Of course theists can do the same thing and make the same observations and arrive at completely difference conclusions. :) And that's at BEST, most people seem to go with what they've been brought up with or what's convenient (i.e. 'feels good') to them. Though I suspect the journey can't really begin until one can get to point of asking not "How CAN I explain 'X'" but rather "What BEST explains X". And even then, even after doing the most objective research and thinking you can, in the end some kind of leap is necessary, it's just the size of the leap that differs. I guess it's like Ravi Zacharias said "God has put enough into the world to make faith in Him a most reasonable thing, and He has left enough out to make it impossible to live by sheer reason or observation alone" - Ravi Zacharias. (When searching for that quote I found this article by L.T. JEYACHANDRAN that says in a much better way what I was trying to communicate in my reply. http://www.rzim.org/justthinkingfv/tabid/602/articleid/23/cbmoduleid/1374/default.aspx ) Regards Jebus

Posted by Jebus

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