Reason and ridicule

Angry mouth

Criticisms of christians and christian faith seem to be more widespread and trenchant than they used to be. And the main basis of the attack is that christianity is not reasonable, not based on evidence. Yet in my experience, the attacks that have greatest impact are not intellectual but emotional, built as much on ridicule as on reason.

What are we to make of this? And how should we deal with it?

Reason and ridicule

In many popular books, many websites, many forums and blogs, arguments against christian belief are presented and argued over. Some of them are strong, many of them are weak, and I will be addressing many of these in upcoming posts. But this isn’t the only form of attack. In recent years it has become more common for vehement atheists to mock and ridicule christians, call us names and misrepresent our beliefs. Some examples:

  • A common epithet is “delusional”. Because we don’t agree with their conclusions, which they are confident must be correct, there must be something wrong with our thinking.
  • Some mockery is more subtle. The gentle assumption that believers are somehow deficient, often not stated directly, but hinted at.
  • More severe mockery may occur if a christian defends a difficult doctrine such as hell or the killing of the Amalekites in the Old Testament, or tries to explain why God allows so much evil in the world – the christian may be charged with being inhumane, dangerous or loathsome.
  • Sometimes our views are misrepresented, then mocked – for example, it is so often claimed that christians have faith because there is no evidence, when in reality we have faith because there is evidence (see Believing by faith?). On occasion, unbelievers may try to shock us with blasphemy or crudity.
  • I’ve seen discussion on blogs and forums about the deliberate use of mockery and nastiness to shock christians out of their belief, with some atheists preferring to behave more kindly, but many believing it is a useful tactic. Some just find it fun.

Please note: I am not describing these tactics to point the finger or accuse all atheists – regrettably, I have seen christians behave just as badly and with less excuse – I am simply outlining the problem.

How does it feel?

I think these approaches may have more impact than rational argument – because we have good answers to rational arguments, but it is hard to have a good answer to mockery. I remember when I first ventured into internet discussions with non-believers, an atheist friend asked me to visit an atheist site which was mocking in a very well-written and effective way (the author was a professional writer). It hit me like a heavyweight punch and left me feeling a little sick in the stomach. There was no argument there I hadn’t considered before, but I hadn’t ever come across such an emotional attack.

How to respond?

  1. Some people should stay away. In daily life, most unbelievers we meet will be family, friends, colleagues, and these are unlikely to be so personal in their attacks on us. Those who find this difficult, or who are not called or equipped to meet these challenges, should simply not read those books or visit those websites.
  2. The Bible makes it clear we must love even those we might see as enemies, and to pray for them (Matthew 5:44), and to respond to other people “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). I have seen so many christians quite deliberately ignore these (and many other similar) passages, even when they are drawn to their attention, and give back insult for insult. Let us resolve to always show love and sensitivity, and to apologise if we overstep this line. And let us pray for those we talk with – if we are not praying, then perhaps we should not be talking. I find this a real challenge.
  3. It is good to recognise what is happening, and even name it in our own minds. “I am being attacked personally, and made to feel inferior emotionally. I don’t have to accept this.”
  4. We need to learn not to respond badly to blasphemy or crudity. God is capable of looking after himself, so we don’t need to berate anyone in response. If we don’t want to put up with it, a graceful exit is best.
  5. Intellectually, the best response to such attacks (which I learned from CS Lewis) is to ask ourselves: “Has this attack changed anything about what I believe?” Generally it hasn’t. So when attacked in this way (or in a more reasonable way) I simply review in my mind why it is that I believe, and ask myself that question. Sometimes I need to think and investigate a little more, sometimes I learn something new as a result, but mostly the attack lacks substance. Never (so far) have I found the arguments underneath the ridicule to be compelling.
  6. If we think we should answer the ‘attacker’, it is often useful to ask for them to re-phrase their statements in the form of a formal philosophical argument – premises leading to a conclusion. Often the ridicule cannot be presented in that form, which shows it up for what it is. Even when it can be presented in that form, the illogic of the argument can generally be easily seen.
  7. Finally, there will be times when an argument has merit. In those cases, I think it is fairest to admit the problem. There are some things about the world that are hard to explain in a world created by a loving God. But there so many other things that point to God’s love for us that we don’t need to be afraid of some difficulties.

Next: some common arguments against christianity and how to think rightly about them.

Read the whole series

This post is part of a series on Training disciples to stand. Check out all the topics here.

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9 thoughts on “Reason and ridicule

  1. Matt says:

    “…if we are not praying, then perhaps we should not be talking. I find this a real challenge.”

    Well said! I too often struggle with this advice.

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  2. felicitydale says:

    We recently met up with someone we had known many years ago at medical school who has since become a Christian. One of his first comments to us was, “Do you remember how we (the non-Christians) used to deliberately ridicule and persecute the Christians?” He then listed some of the things they had done. I had not realized at the time this was a deliberate and planned attack on us.

    As our culture becomes increasingly post-Christian, at least here in the States, we need to be prepared for more of this. I think it made us stronger because there was a cost to our beliefs. We had to know why we stood for our convictions.

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  3. IgnorantiaNescia says:

    “•A common epithet is “delusional”. Because we don’t agree with their conclusions, which they are confident must be correct, there must be something wrong with our thinking.”

    I’ve recently been thinking about something similar recently. A traditional issue in Christian theology is the relation between reason and revelation. Especially in Protestantism a wide array of opinions exist on this issue. There’s clearly a trade-off between how directly reason relates to your (general “you”) beliefs and as how reasonable you can view your opponents. If your worldview is purported to be just a full-throttle, straight-forward application of reason then the chances are you’ll allege that your opponents are irrational. Atheism, which cannot coherently claim being part based on revelation, has to opt for reason wholesale here. Now it’s possible to hold that these issues are quite subtle and not all that straight-forward – a very honest opinion, but it is not one that is readily considered by the agitated ones (on either side, of course).

    The urge to call religion delusional seems to be motivated by this issue.

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  4. unklee says:

    Perhaps, following your idea here, belief in either atheism or theism isn’t just a matter of reason or revelation, but also more personal factors like assumptions, wishes and judgment. And if judgment, then I cannot see why either side cannot accept that their opponents aren’t simply mistaken – i.e. have exercised poor judgment.

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  5. timberwraith says:

    Unclee said:

    If we think we should answer the ‘attacker’, it is often useful to ask for them to re-phrase their statements in the form of a formal philosophical argument – premises leading to a conclusion. Often the ridicule cannot be presented in that form, which shows it up for what it is. Even when it can be presented in that form, the illogic of the argument can generally be easily seen.

    Ah, this is golden, unklee. You are using the speaker’s value of reason in a way that persuades them away from emotional attacks. Pretty darned cool. I think another variant of your approach is to simply observe that the speaker’s use of derision is an appeal to emotional manipulation and hence, is not based in rationality. If the speaker truly embraces rationality as a way of life, then they should be willing to behave rationally during a discussion, yes?

    Let’s call this genre of behaviors what they truly are, shall we? Using ridicule, mockery, and contempt as a means of persuasion is a variation of using emotional and verbal abuse as a tool in manipulating others to embrace one’s worldviews. It doesn’t matter if I actually agree with the speaker in question, promoting abuse as a legitimate tactic of persuasion is inhumane, dangerous and loathsome (to borrow words from your post). Combining willful abuse with the goal of spreading one’s ideas to all corners of society is a recipe for disaster. Verbal violence is just that: violence. Is this the kind of behavior that a social movement whose stated goals are focused upon “bettering the world” should embrace? This is nothing short of hypocrisy.

    *sigh* Sorry for the rant, unclee. I’ve become really disappointed with atheism as a social movement–so much so, that I non longer identify as an atheist. The vocal, active portions of the atheist community seem to be turning ugly and abusive, just as many forms of organized religion have in the US. Responding to the injustices of the church with more abuse seems terribly wrong headed (and wrong hearted).

    I could go on, but suffice to say, the social movement that has charged itself with the responsibility of challenging the flaws of religion seems to be accumulating its own flaws at an alarming rate. I’ve read a couple of your critiques of Christianity on this blog. Because of my negative experiences with my own corner of the belief spectrum, I can commiserate with you. Good grief. 😦

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  6. unklee says:

    Thanks timberwraith, I appreciate your comments. And I have visited your site to see more of what you think. Although we are on different sides of the question of God and christianity, we can still agree on treating each other as valuable human beings. I think your words sum up what we both believe:

    “Using ridicule, mockery, and contempt as a means of persuasion is a variation of using emotional and verbal abuse as a tool in manipulating others to embrace one’s worldviews.”

    Thanks for visiting. Best wishes.

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