If it’s good enough for Spock

Excellent piece by Dan Fincke the other day, on why Dawkins wasn’t wrong or mean to say at the Reason Rally that patently absurd religious beliefs should be as subject to mockery as any other patently absurd beliefs, and in fact more so, since their very immunity helps people to go on being included as “Catholics” and other brands of believer when in fact they aren’t really believers at all.

While the media has largely ignored The Reason Rally, the one most popular bit of news that seems to be traveling around and getting criticized is Richard Dawkins’s recommendation to the crowd that we should incredulously and mockingly ask people who say they are Catholic whether they really believe in the transsubstantiation during the Eucharist in which bread becomes literally the body of Christ and wine becomes literally the blood of Christ.

Critics are responding to Dawkins’s remarks by accusing him of hypocritically and perversely using what was nominally a rally for reason to pump up prejudice and mocking unreasonableness. To interpret his critics charitably, the following assumptions must be in play:

“To be rational in the utmost is to consider one’s opponent’s best arguments rather than to attack either strawman or ‘weak man’ arguments.”

“To attack with mockery, rather than argument, the prima facie absurdity of transsubstantiation is to evade serious rational discussion of the question of God’s existence.”

“To attempt to persuade someone by mocking their beliefs rather than carefully refuting them is to attempt an end-run around rational debate and to try to bully someone into agreement by pressuring them that if they do not agree with you they will look silly and be thought a fool.”

I want to give my own reply to that last one, even though it duplicates what Dan says later. It’s a point worth making often; drip drip drip, you know.

Yes, mockery is an unworthy shortcut if that’s all you do, but of course Dawkins wasn’t suggesting that that should be all you do.

The point of this idea in general is that most obviously absurd ideas are recognized as such (hence the word “obviously”). Fairy stories and the Easter bunny are for children. Adults who take Harry Potter or Dr Mr Spock seriously are the source of endless nerd jokes. It’s only longstanding religious absurd ideas that are treated as immune from the equivalent of nerd jokes. That’s why we think it’s a good idea to end this immunity. That doesn’t mean we think that’s all that should happen, or that we think there’s no need ever to give reasons for thinking the beliefs are absurd. We just think that treating religious magical beliefs the same way we treat belief in fairies or the Easter bunny is one way – one of many – to chip away at religion’s special immunity. We don’t think religion should have that kind of special immunity. We accept that it should have certain kinds of special immunity from the state, but that doesn’t mean that we as citizens have to pretend that while it’s obvious that Santa Claus is just a story, it’s not at all obvious that a wafer doesn’t turn into a bit of Jesus.

All patently absurd ideas should be on the same footing. If it’s ok to laugh at the idea of adults who wear Star Treck Trek uniforms then it’s ok to laugh at the idea of adults who believe a priest can turn wine into Jesus’s blood.


  1. stonyground says

    As far as I am aware, Trekkies do understand that Star Trek is fiction. In that case, making fun of them is uncalled for as they are only indulging in some harmless fun. Religious people, on the other hand, often believe that their delusions are real and in some cases can be a danger to themselves and others around them.

  2. maddog1129 says

    “Dr. Spock” was the baby authority of the 1950’s and ’60’s. Mr. Spock is the logical Vulcan of Star Trek.

  3. JSC_ltd says

    Adults who take Harry Potter or Dr Spock seriously are the source of endless nerd jokes.

    I know ol’ Benjamin’s ideas on child rearing are no longer cutting edge, but I’ve never known parents who took him seriously to be the source of nerd jokes.

  4. Steersman says

    Absolutely. As Thomas Jefferson said:

    Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.

  5. Ken Pidcock says

    As far as I am aware, Trekkies do understand that Star Trek is fiction.

    And may Catholics understand that transubstantiation is fiction. But imagine if Trekkies felt that they were unable to acknowledge that Star Trek is fiction. Then you’d have the same situation as with Catholics. And, yes, then it’s fair to ask them, incessantly, Are you seriously telling me you believe that?

    By the way, I’m assuming the Dr. Spock thing was a trap, nerds.

  6. Godless Heathen says

    Seconding stonyground.

    I think the better retort is the tooth fairy/Easter bunny thing. Or the non-Christian religions thing (if you’re in a majority Christian country like America). I remember sitting in school in 2nd or 3rd grade learning about Native American mythology and having a hard to understanding why anyone would actually believe that. Same thing when I learned Greek mythology in 10th grade. I assumed people took it as metaphor. (I later realized it was more about not having the tools to find out the actual answers than anything else. And, who knows, maybe people did understand those stories as the myths they area.)

    Growing up in a (mostly) non-religious household, I always assumed that Christians didn’t literally believe in the stories they told either. Clearly, I was wrong.

    But… how many Catholics literally believe in transubstantiation? I know that according to dogma, they should believe it literally, but how many actually do?

  7. Stewart says

    “But… how many Catholics literally believe in transubstantiation? I know that according to dogma, they should believe it literally, but how many actually do?”

    It’s very easy for us to make transubstantiation=cannibalism jokes, but one could wonder how a Catholic who genuinely believes actually feels while munching on what – all sensory input notwithstanding – is supposed to be (divine) human flesh. Has anyone seen this seriously addressed?

  8. says

    “But… how many Catholics literally believe in transubstantiation? I know that according to dogma, they should believe it literally, but how many actually do?”

    It’s not what they should believe it’s what they are required to believe.

  9. Stewart says

    “It’s not what they should believe it’s what they are required to believe.”

    Granted, but the interesting question is how this plays out in their minds. We can all easily see the absurdity of a requirement to believe, at least I hope all of us can. Maybe this question feels different to atheists who are ex-believers, but as I’m not included in that category, I have to use my imagination, and it’s not really up to the task.

  10. GordonWillis says

    Something not at all clear to me is why it is necessary for RCs to believe that the communion sacraments really are the actual body and blood of Christ. What is the reasoning behind this? It’s all very well for them to complain about being mocked, but how many of them are able to defend the belief? Maybe it is salutary for us to understand that others can only comprehend a pet idea as ludicrous. Why shouldn’t we all be made to examine our beliefs and explain ourselves?

  11. GordonWillis says

    Because that’s what makes them Catholics. Believing something wack is a virtue; any old fool can believe something reasonable.

    Yes, that’s true. But there is a reason why, nevertheless, and surely that’s the point. It’s easy to take refuge in hurt bewilderment when our beliefs are threatened, but isn’t the threat an opportunity to affirm something of importance? If in fact there’s no recourse but to hide behind the “virtue” of “faith” then the mockery shouldn’t stop. I suppose the final retreat is the persecution of the ungodly, but isn’t that also an admission of defeat?

  12. 'Tis Himself says

    When I was going through Catholic grade school and high school it was drummed into me that transubstantiation is for real. When the man in the dress says “hocus pocus” then Jebus comes down from Heaven and transforms the cracker and wine into his literal body and blood. If the nuns and monks didn’t believe it, they sure kept their disbelief well hidden.

  13. Ulgaa says

    Nice, Dr. Spock then Star Treck. Ophelia you are showing your total lack of nerd/geek knowledge here.

  14. GordonWillis says

    “hoc est corpus”, yes. It has good scriptural warrant (Mark 14:22-24). Why should they not believe it? On the other hand, why do they? Or rather, how does it work literally?

  15. says

    So Tis, did you ever have any “ewwwwwwwwwww gross” feeling? You must have!

    Do little Catholic kids whisper about this amongst themselves?

    You’d think it would loom large, but I have no idea.

  16. Godless Heathen says

    Hmm… considering the fact that the Catholics I grew up around (generally) didn’t seem to support most of the church’s teachings, I always assumed they didn’t really believe either. I thought they went to mass because it’s what their family/community did.

  17. Deepak Shetty says

    Mr Spock seriously are the source of endless nerd jokes.
    Spock is the source of endless nerd jokes? You had better not come within arm’s reach of my Vulcan death grip

  18. dirigible says

    Not enough Big Bang Theory fans on this thread.

    I spoke to an ex-catholic who described one of her friends as a child during communion showing them the chewed up host on their tongue to shock them.

  19. says

    My understanding of why Catholics believe transubstantiation has to be literally true is because Jesus says in the bible, “This is my body, this is my blood,” not “this is a symbol for my body, this is a stand-in for my blood.” Peculiar how the Catholics are so literal about that bit, but the Protestants hold that Communion is purely symbolic.

  20. Stewart says

    Thanks. Seems to be resonating gratifyingly so far. The other thing I linked to there, the one from two years ago about the “beverage,” is worth reading in full, I think (that is, even after you get the main joke).

  21. 'Tis Himself says

    So Tis, did you ever have any “ewwwwwwwwwww gross” feeling? You must have!

    Yes, transubstantiation did strike me as literal cannibalism when I started to examine it. I had no trouble jettisoning that bit of Catholic dogma when I started taking a hard look at Catholicism.

    In 8th Grade, the absolute worst teacher I ever had inflicted on me, Br. Louis Meinhardt*, was the religion teacher. We were discussing the pre-communion fast (Catholics are not supposed to consume anything but water and medicines for an hour before taking communion). The question came up, “what if you have a nose bleed and swallow some blood, does that break the fast?” The answer is if the blood comes out of the nose, down the lip and into the mouth, then the fast is broken. If the blood enters the back of the mouth from the nose and no blood is external, then the fast isn’t broken. Now that’s gross!

    *Even worse than Professor Eidelheit. At least Eidelheit never beat me, unlike Meinhardt.

  22. says

    The communion fast was once 12 hours. When I was a child it was from midnight on the day unless you went to midnight mass when it was from 8.00 pm the previous day. It then went down to 3 hours and finally one hour. It has always struck me that if you’re going to fast you may as well do it properly. A one hour fast is ridiculous.

  23. says

    Though I’ve never been Catholic, as I understand the doctrine of transubstantiation, it holds that while the wafer and wine maintain the apparent physical characteristics (the *accidents*) of bread and wine, once consecrated they take on the *essence* of Christ’s body and blood. All that you need in order to accept that is 1) belief in the concept of Aristotelian essentialism, and 2) belief that the immutable inherent properties of things, as defined by essentialism, can be miraculously altered by God. Essentialism really is “another way of knowing” – essences are not subject to any empirical or scientific analysis, so religious people can feel free to just “make shit up” to get the theology to say what they want it to.

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