Aug 06 2009

Poe’s Law Writ Large

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I contend that this is not necessarily the case. I have discussed Poe’s Law previously, but I feel it’s time to revisit this phenomenon. What’s Poe’s Law, you ask? Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

[I]t is impossible to write a parody of a creationist trope that will not convince at least one reader that it’s a legitimate belief held by a real religious person.

(Yes, I blockquoted myself.)

This is a slight oversimplification of the problem at hand, however; a full explanation is available elsewhere on the intertubes. The original law states that it is impossible, without use of smileys or other distinguishing marks. It occurs to me that these distinguishing marks do not necessarily have to be blatant. They could be implicit, or consist of in-jokes. But in these cases, when the implicit marks or in-jokes are missed, we’re right back where we started — a whole website full of hilarity, whose point is completely missed by the sheer numbers of horrified and traumatized visitors who cannot bring themselves to countenance that real people really believe the things they saw there.

Such was the case very recently on some atheist blogs with the eminently hilarious OBJECTIVE: Ministries website. If you’ve been around the interweb tubes for long enough, you’ll recognize them as a first-class Poe — in fact, you’ll probably recognize some of the stuff from their kids site, as it is eminently meme-worthy (I especially love Mr. Gruff). Sadly, Tacoma Atheist (a Twitter account for a group of atheists from, you guessed it, Tacoma) was taken in by this, posting it as being a horrifying and unintentionally hilarious attempt at indoctrinating children. I quickly corrected them, much to their relief. Having known their website from some of my earliest internet travels, watching them parody the actions of creationists in trying to get another Poe site, Landover Baptist Church, shut down, I was well versed in their intention.

The problem with both sites is that, despite their both being so over-the-top and despite both sites having subtle shout-outs to us faithless, at a glance one could honestly not distinguish either one of them from earnest attempts at internet proselytism. I say “problem”, though this is one of their core concepts. If they were to drop their Poe veneer, they’d undoubtedly jump the shark pretty well instantly. Imagine if Stephen Colbert were to come out and officially declare himself a liberal, exposing his agent provocateur status and sacrificing the inroads he’s made with the religious and conservative portions of the country outright. A lot of his edge, his humor, would be lost. And yet, while we on the left are laughing at his outright parody, there’s a significant portion of the right that thinks he’s genuinely skewering liberals and genuinely espousing conservative values. And they find him funny in exactly the same way that we do. They laugh at exactly the same jokes. Either there’s a layer of meta we’re missing, or there’s more to what he’s saying than he’s letting on.

Intentionally writing a comment, or blog post, or website, that lampoons religious non-thinking is in its own way a buttressing of this law. The “problem” that this law poses, lies entirely in one’s perspective. As the image to the right suggests, one’s own perspective colors the appearance of any fundamentalist as being a parody. The more rational you are, the more likely you are to mistake a poster who seriously and truly believes in magical nonsense for a parodist. Even with training, one cannot escape this mindset. I admit that in seeing Zdenny and Michael D post on this blog recently, my thoughts went immediately to them being Poes (that is, intentional parodists trying to hide their parody status behind a patina of earnestness). In further dealings, I’ve discovered that either these individuals are fantastic and dedicated Poes, building up back stories over months and even years of posting on blogs, or they truly are as indoctrinated as they appear to be. The problem posed of a rationalist faced with a potential violation of Poe’s Law is in believing there actually are people so pig-ignorant of the status of real science and so utterly hoodwinked by big names like Behe and Comfort and Ham that the beliefs they confer are as real to them as my understanding of science and its practical examples are to me. It’s not that we have different information available to us — it’s that certain filters have been put into place in our brains (see: Bible Glasses) that prevent us from seeing information that contradicts our established world views.

The thing is, for rationalists, the filter is “any hypothesis that isn’t well-evidenced is probably false until further evidence is obtained, so more evidence should be obtained if available and if no evidence is forthcoming, the hypothesis should be rejected”. This is an extraordinarily flexible filter, and an extraordinarily useful one — it keeps you from believing that hopping on one leg around a fire will bring rains, and it keeps you from believing that vaccines are the cause for autism, and it keeps you from believing that homosexuality is evil because a really old book says so.

For the religious, this filter is much different: “any hypothesis that contradicts the holy scriptures is DEFINITELY false, and should be rejected outright, regardless of how much evidence comes along”. This second filter encourages people to first interpret their scripture as they see fit, then do everything in their power to proselytize their beliefs, and to shut down dissent from their interpretation. It is because this filter allows for just about any crazy thing to be internalized and accepted, and allows any logical fallacy to be employed as though it were an “inescapable steel trap”, that it makes it so difficult for rationalists to tell the difference between someone who genuinely accepts the crazy belief, and someone who is merely pretending to for laughs.

Interestingly, Roger Ebert recently attempted to illustrate just how wild and out there some of the legitimately held beliefs of creationists really are, by posting to his Chicago Sun-Times commentary column a “questions and answers” essay. Needless to say, because he made no attempt at identifying it as such, evangelicals and rationalists alike were taken in — praising his views, and expressing shock and dismay, respectively. Shortly thereafter, he felt obligated to explain that he was merely attempting to illustrate how untenable many creationist ideas really are, due to the overwhelming volume of e-mails and comments he received that “bought it”, hook, line and sinker.

If even a well-known and vociferous rationalist like Roger Ebert can fool the masses, it makes me wonder how likely it is that, if I were to post say a month from now that I had returned to church and found Jesus, how many of my readers would believe me.

… Umm… forget I said that.

A few more examples of intentional Poes that are easier to spot due to their snarky language include Hundreds of Proofs of God’s Existence, and An Atheist’s Guide to Becoming Religious. I’m sure there are a good number of such hilarious Poes in your bookmarks. Please, now’s the time to share them!


  1. 1
    Jason Thibeault

    hmmm I can’t think of any Poes that I have…… I’ll have to get looking though because I love Poes, they make me laugh.

  2. 2

    Argument from sports fans:
    1) I like hockey
    2) I need a ticket to get a picture taken with the Stanley Cup
    3) I had no ticket
    4) I got my picture taken with the Stanley Cup
    5) Therefore, God exists.

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