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.