Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Giving Up Ridicule

One of the things I care about a lot is to see a naturalistic worldview gain more ground over religious worldviews. For a long time, I’ve been having doubts on whether ridicule is effective in that endeavor. The first time I had doubts was when I started reading the naturalism.org website. I quite easily accepted that we are fully caused beings and are a product of our genetic makeup and the environment we grew up in. But I found it hard to accept the conclusions that follow from the premises:

The New Atheism has been roundly criticized by some supernaturalists and naturalists for its contempt of faith-based religion, see here for a recent example. Whether or not these charges have merit, it’s worth mentioning that naturalism, at least as advanced by the Center for Naturalism, tends to militate against such attitudes. Although we make a strong, unapologetic and rational case for sticking with science as the basis for belief, by our lights contempt for those who don’t is fundamentally unwarranted. Anti-naturalists and naturalists, equally, end up with their worldviews as a function of the vagaries of genetics and life experience. Some individuals are more inclined than others to want certainty, others are more open to new experience, and we are all heavily influenced by the beliefs and mores of our culture and peers. Understanding the contingency of our worldview – that we could have grown up to be the theist, not the naturalist – makes it more difficult to feel contempt for our ideological adversaries.

So I pushed it to the back of my mind. Ridicule was way too much fun to give up.

The doubts came back with full force when I started reading up on the elevator-gate incident. I was surprised at the amount of nastiness it generated. How can people who live by science, reason, and logic fail so badly in understanding a contrary viewpoint and as a result talk past, and ridicule each other? In retrospect it shouldn’t have been that surprising.

Ridicule works very well within the in-group, with people who already share some of beliefs. But it doesn’t work so well when you want to get others to see your point of view. It puts them on the defensive, and may even drive them to hold onto to the contrary view even more strongly. The aggressive tone of some of the discussions in elevator-gate is no different than what I use on this blog and elsewhere.

I still tried to convince myself that ridicule does work, citing the influence of the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens. It is undeniable that their approach worked. Atheism has gained a lot of visibility because of that. But the question is does ridicule cause someone to abandon their beliefs? I feel the answer is no most of the time. People like Dawkins and Hitchens tapped into an audience who were already skeptical of religious worldviews. So their approach worked in that respect. But I don't think it will work when you want to make religious people understand why their beliefs are wrong.

Apart from tapping into the anger at religious worldviews, there is another way by which ridicule works. It can create an environment where people don't feel comfortable in professing to some beliefs. When applied to religion, that seems like a good goal to achieve. But changed beliefs are better than suppressed beliefs, which have a tendency to prop up when the conditions are more favorable to them. So using that as a reason to stick to ridicule is also ruled out.

In conclusion, I’ve decided to give up ridicule. This doesn’t mean I will give up on criticizing religion, superstition and pseudoscience because it will be offensive to someone. No matter how delicately I put something, there will always be people who will find it offensive and feel that I am ridiculing them. But what I am giving up is the criticism that has a deliberate intent to ridicule beliefs and the vindictive arguments that are meant to get even. I don’t know how successful I will be in giving up those things. I’m hoping that this post will serve as a shaming device when I do resort to ridicule, no matter how repulsive a belief I come across and have to criticize it.