By now, I expect that readers will have formed their own opinions about the tragic massacre of twelve people at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo. And I expect, too, that people will have read and digested the remarks subsequently made by His Holiness Pope Francis on the inappropriateness of ridiculing other people’s faith. In an interview aboard the papal plane, while flying from Sri Lanka to the Philippines, the Pope gestured towards Alberto Gasparri, a Vatican official who was standing next to him on board the plane, and said: “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch in the nose. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
Most of my readers will have had the experience of having their own religious beliefs held up to ridicule. And on this blog, it is not unusual for some commenters to ridicule the beliefs – whether religious, philosophical or scientific – of other contributors. The design argument has itself been held up to ridicule – not only by materialists, but even by theistic philosophers such as Christopher Martin, who once wrote: “The Being whose existence is revealed to us by the argument from design is not God but the Great Architect of the Deists and Freemasons, an impostor disguised as God, a stern, kindly, and immensely clever old English gentleman, equipped with apron, trowel, square and compasses.”
Ridicule, even when it is biting, should always be civil; there is a difference, after all, between ridicule and abuse. The question I propose to examine here is whether ridicule itself is wrong, when it is directed at other people’s most sacred beliefs.
Although I’ll be making a few historical observations, I won’t be putting forward any arguments in this post, as I’d like to throw the discussion open to readers. Let me begin with a few clarifications. As media commentator Rachel Lu has pointed out, the Pope was making an off-the-cuff remark, and it was not clear what he meant when he suggested that speech should not be unfettered. There is no reason to suppose that he was advocating legal barriers to freedom of speech; instead, he may well have been referring to ethical limits, or he may have simply been asking people (and especially Christians) to discipline their tongues for the sake of peace, and out of respect for the feelings of others.
It would be extremely rude for someone to hold up to ridicule the religious beliefs of their next-door neighbor, their friends, their co-workers or their business associates. Courtesy should be the rule in our day-to-day dealings with others. However, the question I’d like to discuss is whether ridicule of religious beliefs is ever appropriate in a public forum – for example, in an online blog article, in an essay in a magazine, or in a speech at a public rally.
I should add, too, that while some have faulted Pope Francis for his “punch in the nose” comment, I can think of at least one hypothetical situation where such a response might be appropriate. Imagine that you are going to your local house of worship, as you regularly do, and that when you get there, you are surprised to find the entrance blocked by a horde of demonstrators shouting ugly slogans against people of your faith, and trying to physically prevent worshipers from getting into the building where they regularly meet. Although you abhor violence, you are determined to exercise your constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of worship, and in order to exercise that right, you might well need to throw a punch at one of the demonstrators blocking your way, in order to get through. (Yes, of course you would call the police first; but what if they were too busy to come, due to other, even more pressing matters, such as civil unrest? Or what if they were physically overwhelmed by the large crowd of demonstrators? It would be absurd to say that the worshipers should all meekly go home and never meet again at their house of worship, for a right which cannot be defended, by force if necessary, is no right at all.) Now suppose that you have finally made your way into your local house of worship, and that the people in your congregation have started their regular worship ceremony. Imagine that everyone now starts praying, and communing with the God Whom they all worship. Suddenly, at the very climax of the ceremony, the demonstrators burst into the assembly, interrupt the proceedings, start yelling nasty slogans, and shatter the communion that the worshipers were enjoying with their God, thereby making communal prayer impossible. Who would deny that the people in that congregation would be perfectly within their rights, morally speaking, in forcibly evicting the rowdy demonstrators from the building, and perhaps administering a punch in the nose to some of the more unruly ones who refused to leave?
Even in this hypothetical scenario, a punch in the nose would not be very politically savvy. A more intelligent strategy would be for the congregation of worshipers to lock arms in concentric circles around their pastor, with elderly women standing in the outermost circle, facing the protesters, and then proceed to hold an impromptu service. This would create a “no-win” situation for the protesters: in order to disrupt the service, they’d have to hit and shove elderly women, which would not look good on a Youtube video.
St. Ignatius and the donkey
Having said that, I am somewhat troubled by the Pope’s comparison between insulting someone’s faith and insulting their mother. The Pope himself is a Jesuit, so to illustrate my point, I’d like to cite a little episode from the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. As a young man, St. Ignatius led a rather worldly life, before undergoing a dramatic spiritual conversion at the age of 30. A Jesuit blog tells the story of what happened next:
Shortly after his conversion, the ex-soldier and courtier Ignatius was riding down a dusty road in Spain in the company of a Muslim Moor. They were discussing religion, and, not surprisingly, they disagreed on a few points. The Moor angrily ended the discussion and rode off. As a parting shot, he made some insulting remarks about the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Ignatius was outraged. He thought it might be his knightly duty to defend the honor of Mary by killing the Moor, but he wasn’t sure that would be consistent with his new faith. He left the decision up to the donkey he was riding. They were approaching a crossroads. If the donkey took the road that the Moor took, Ignatius would follow and kill him. If the beast took the other road, he would let him go. The donkey took the other road.
Now, St. Ignatius could have said to himself, “Our Lady is my spiritual mother, and this man just insulted her. He deserves a punch in the nose.” But he didn’t. The rest is history.
Why insulting someone’s faith is not like insulting their mother
There are two reasons why insulting someone’s faith is not like insulting their mother. First, most of us cannot help loving our mothers; for to love your mother is the most natural thing in the world. It is not something we choose to do. Religion, by contrast, is a matter of choice: even if we are raised in a particular religion, there is nothing compelling us to remain in it. Second, mothers have certain rights, because they are human beings. Religions, on the other hand, are ideas; and ideas have no rights. Thus it is simply absurd to speak of a religion as having the right not to be ridiculed. Nor does it make sense to say that I have the right not to have my beliefs ridiculed. Once again, beliefs have no rights, and they do not acquire any rights simply by virtue of being mine. Finally, the pompous assertion (which is made in all seriousness by some people) that I have the “blanket right” not to be ridiculed for anything I think, say or do, simply will not withstand scrutiny. It is certainly wrong to ridicule someone for something beyond their control – e.g. their physical appearance, or a disability or disease from which they are suffering. But beliefs, like actions, are choices, and as such, they are within my control. And if I make a particularly stupid choice – e.g. embracing a faddish new religion that is known to have been founded by a charlatan – then surely I deserve to be ridiculed for it. Such ridicule may be impolite, but it is not unmerited.
Another thing I’d like to point out is that there is a long tradition, within the Judeo-Christian tradition, of ridiculing other people’s religious beliefs. The Bible records some of the prophets ridiculing paganism, and some of the early Christian Fathers did the same. Rival religions, such as Manicheism and Islam, were ridiculed by other Fathers of the Church, from the fourth century onwards.
Ridicule of pagan religions in the Bible
Here, for instance, is Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:22-29, NIV):
22Then Elijah said to [the people], “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. 23 Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”
Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”
25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.
27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
And here is Isaiah, taunting idol worshippers (Isaiah 44: 9-13, 16-17, NIV):
9 All who make idols are nothing,
and the things they treasure are worthless.
Those who would speak up for them are blind;
they are ignorant, to their own shame.
10 Who shapes a god and casts an idol,
which can profit nothing?
11 People who do that will be put to shame;
such craftsmen are only human beings.
Let them all come together and take their stand;
they will be brought down to terror and shame.
12 The blacksmith takes a tool
and works with it in the coals;
he shapes an idol with hammers,
he forges it with the might of his arm.
He gets hungry and loses his strength;
he drinks no water and grows faint.
13 The carpenter measures with a line
and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels
and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form,
human form in all its glory,
that it may dwell in a shrine…
16 Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
over it he prepares his meal,
he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
“Save me! You are my god!”
How the early Christian Fathers ridiculed paganism
Likewise, the early Christians did not hesitate to ridicule the beliefs of the pagans living in their midst. St. Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 A.D.) mocked idol worshippers in his First Apology:
Chapter 9. Folly of idol worship
And neither do we honour with many sacrifices and garlands of flowers such deities as men have formed and set in shrines and called gods; since we see that these are soulless and dead, and have not the form of God (for we do not consider that God has such a form as some say that they imitate to His honour), but have the names and forms of those wicked demons which have appeared. For why need we tell you who already know, into what forms the craftsmen (Isaiah 44:9-20; Jeremiah 10:3), carving and cutting, casting and hammering, fashion the materials? And often out of vessels of dishonour, by merely changing the form, and making an image of the requisite shape, they make what they call a god; which we consider not only senseless, but to be even insulting to God, who, having ineffable glory and form, thus gets His name attached to things that are corruptible, and require constant service. And that the artificers of these are both intemperate, and, not to enter into particulars, are practised in every vice, you very well know; even their own girls who work along with them they corrupt. What infatuation! That dissolute men should be said to fashion and make gods for your worship, and that you should appoint such men the guardians of the temples where they are enshrined; not recognising that it is unlawful even to think or say that men are the guardians of gods.
And here is St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) disparaging the Roman god Zeus, in his Exhortation to the Heathen:
Thou makest Zeus venerable, O Homer; and the nod which thou dost ascribe to him is most reverend. But show him only a woman’s girdle, and Zeus is exposed, and his locks are dishonoured. To what a pitch of licentiousness did that Zeus of yours proceed, who spent so many nights in voluptuousness with Alcmene?…
This is Jupiter the good, the prophetic, the patron of hospitality, the protector of suppliants, the benign, the author of omens, the avenger of wrongs; rather the unjust, the violater of right and of law, the impious, the inhuman, the violent, the seducer, the adulterer, the amatory…
For Zeus is dead, be not distressed, as Leda is dead, and the swan, and the eagle, and the libertine, and the serpent. And now even the superstitious seem, although reluctantly, yet truly, to have come to understand their error respecting the Gods…
Is it not clear that they are those we have mentioned, and those of more renown, the great demons, Apollo, Artemis, Leto, Demeter, Core, Pluto, Hercules, and Zeus himself?
I can imagine that many pagans, upon hearing their chief god described as “inhuman,” an “adulterer,” “dead” and even as a “great demon,” might well have felt deeply offended by such remarks. If someone wishes to say that it is wrong to ridicule other people’s religious faith, then it seems that they have no choice but to condemn St. Clement of Alexandria for saying what he did.
Writing at around the same time, the African Church Father Tertullian (c. 160-225 A.D.) maintained that Christians, being in possession of the truth, have not only the right but also the duty to engage in gentle ridicule of false religious opinions:
What I have now done is only a little sport before the real combat. I have rather indicated the wounds that might be given you, than inflicted any. If the reader has met with passages which have excited his risibility, he must ascribe this to the subjects themselves. There are many things which deserve to be held up in this way to ridicule and mockery, lest, by a serious refutation, we should attach a weight to them which they do not deserve. Nothing is more due to vanity than laughter; and it is the Truth properly that has a right to laugh, because she is cheerful, and to make sport of her enemies, because she is sure of the victory. Care must be taken, indeed, that the raillery is not too low, and unworthy of the truth; but, keeping this in view, when ridicule may be employed with effect, it is a duty to avail ourselves of it… To treat them seriously would be to sanction them.
(Adversus Valentinianos 6,2. CCL, p. 757; V 183, lines 7f. Quoted by Blaise Pascal in his Provincial Letters, chapter 11.)
True to his word, Tertullian did not hesitate to ridicule pagan religious practices in his Apology to the Emperor (Chapter XIV):
I shall now take a review of the rites of your religion, but will not insist upon the quality of your sacrifices, which you know to be the oldest and scabidest beasts you can find; if they happen to be fat and good, you chop off the hoofs and some outside bit, and such pieces only you vouchsafe your gods, which you bestow upon your dogs and slaves. Instead of offering Hercules the tenth of your goods, you hardly lay one third of it upon his altar; not that I blame you for this, for believe me, I take it for a great instance of your wisdom, to save some of that which otherwise would be all lost.
But I shall turn to your writings; and, bless me! what strange stuff about your gods do I find, even in your institutions of prudence, and such books as are designed to polish a gentleman, and form him to all the offices of a civil life! Here I find your gods engaged by pairs like gladiators, one against another, helter skelter, some for Greeks, and some for Trojans. Venus wounded with a human shaft in rescuing her son Aeneas from Diomedes, just upon the point of killing him. The god of war in chains for thirteen months, and in a very lamentable pickle; and Jove by the help of a monster narrowly escaping the like treatment from the rest of the celestial gang. One while he is represented crying for his Sarpedon, another while in the arms of his grunting sister, recounting his amours, and protesting that of all his mistresses she is the darling. Besides, which of your poets takes not the liberty to disgrace a god for a compliment to his prince ? One makes Apollo King Admetus’s shepherd; another makes Neptune bricklayer to Laomedon; and the man of lyrics, Pindar, I mean, sings of Aesculapius’s being thunderstruck for abusing his skill in physic out of covetousness. But I must needs say that Jove did ill, if Jove was the thunderer, in being so unnatural to his nephew, and so envious to so fine an artist. However, these things, if true, ought not to be divulged; nor invented, if false, by any who pretend so much zeal for the gods and their religion. But neither tragedians nor comedians are one bit more tender of the reputation of your deities; for you shall not meet a prologue that is not stuffed with the disasters and excesses of the family of some god or other.
The early Christians ridiculed rival religions, too
The early Christians’ ridicule of other religions was not confined to paganism; it extended to new rival religions, as well. Long after Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) held up to ridicule the beliefs to the dualistic Manichees – a sect to which he once belonged – in his work, On the Morals of the Manichaeans:
67. We see then, now, the nature of your three symbols. These are your customs. This is the end of your notable precepts, in which there is nothing sure, nothing steadfast, nothing consistent, nothing irreproachable, but all doubtful, or rather undoubtedly and entirely false, all contradictory, abominable, absurd. In a word, evil practices are detected in your customs so many and so serious, that one wishing to denounce them all, if he were at all able to enlarge, would require at least a separate treatise for each. Were you to observe these, and to act up to your profession, no childishness, or folly, or absurdity would go beyond yours; and when you praise and teach these things without doing them, you display craft and deceit and malevolence equal to anything that can be described or imagined.
The early Christian Fathers even ridiculed other Christians whose beliefs they considered heretical. Thus St. Jerome (347-420), a contemporary of St. Augustine who translated the Bible into Latin, disparaged the heretic Helvidius in his treatise, On the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as “an ignorant boor who has scarce known the first glimmer of learning,” and cuttingly added: “To defend his position he piles up text upon text, waves his sword like a blind-folded gladiator, rattles his noisy tongue, and ends with wounding no one but himself.”
Nor did the ridicule stop there. In the seventh century, St. John Damascene (675/676-749) mocked Islam in his classic, The Fount of Knowledge, as the following excerpts reveal:
There is also the superstition of the Ishmaelites which to this day prevails and keeps people in error, being a forerunner of the Antichrist.… From that time to the present a false prophet named Mohammed has appeared in their midst. This man, after having chanced upon the Old and New Testaments and likewise, it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk, devised his own heresy. Then, having insinuated himself into the good graces of the people by a show of seeming piety, he gave out that a certain book had been sent down to him from heaven. He had set down some ridiculous compositions in this book of his and he gave it to them as an object of veneration.…
But when we ask: ‘And who is there to testify that God gave him the book? And which of the prophets foretold that such a prophet would rise up?’—they are at a loss. And we remark that Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai, with God appearing in the sight of all the people in cloud, and fire, and darkness, and storm. And we say that all the Prophets from Moses on down foretold the coming of Christ and how Christ God (and incarnate Son of God) was to come and to be crucified and die and rise again, and how He was to be the judge of the living and dead. Then, when we say: ‘How is it that this prophet of yours did not come in the same way, with others bearing witness to him? And how is it that God did not in your presence present this man with the book to which you refer, even as He gave the Law to Moses, with the people looking on and the mountain smoking, so that you, too, might have certainty?’—they answer that God does as He pleases…
As has been related, this Mohammed wrote many ridiculous books, to each one of which he set a title. For example, there is the book On Woman, in which he plainly makes legal provision for taking four wives and, if it be possible, a thousand concubines – as many as one can maintain, besides the four wives. He also made it legal to put away whichever wife one might wish, and, should one so wish, to take to oneself another in the same way. Mohammed had a friend named Zeid. This man had a beautiful wife with whom Mohammed fell in love. Once, when they were sitting together, Mohammed said: ‘Oh, by the way, God has commanded me to take your wife.’ The other answered: ‘You are an apostle. Do as God has told you and take my wife.’
St. John Damascene evidently did not believe that it was wrong to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs. And surely ridicule is appropriate when its target is a religion whose founder consummated his marriage to his favorite wife when she was only nine or ten years old, who wrote in his holy book (which was allegedly dictated by an angel) that men are entitled to hit disobedient wives, and who personally approved the cruel slaughter of over 800 men and boys (and at least one woman) from a Jewish tribe which had surrendered to him, despite the fact that they had never offered the slightest resistance to him in the first place. One of the surviving women became his personal sex slave; the others were parceled out among his men, or sold to procure more weapons. Moreover, these acts by the founder have never been disowned by this religion’s followers; nor have these followers ever formally renounced the use of violence in the name of religion. People who want to learn more about the history of this religion can find out more here.
By contrast, Judaism and Christianity unequivocally condemn religious violence and affirm that “Every person has the right to express his religious beliefs in worship, teaching and practice, and to proclaim the implications of his beliefs for relationships in a social or political community,” as the World Council of Churches aptly put it in its Declaration on Religious Liberty that was adopted in Amsterdam in August 1948. And while the interpretation of Biblical texts which appear to countenance religious violence remains controverted, both Jews and Christians teach that such violence has no place in today’s world.
Christian ridicule of atheism dates back to the fourth century
Atheism has been ridiculed by Christians from the fourth century onwards, beginning with the Christian thinker Lactantius (c. 240-320), who mocked the crude atomism espoused by the Greek philosopher Epicurus in Book III of his work, The Divine Institutes:
There is no need, he [Epicurus] says, of supposing a providence; for there are seeds floating through the empty void, and from these, collected together without order, all things are produced and take their form. Why, then, do we not perceive or distinguish them? Because, he says, they have neither any colour, nor warmth, nor smell; they are also without flavour and moisture; and they are so minute, that they cannot be cut and divided.
Thus, because he had taken up a false principle at the commencement, the necessity of the subjects which followed led him to absurdities. For where or from whence are these atoms? Why did no one dream of them besides Leucippus only? From whom Democritus, having received instructions, left to Epicurus the inheritance of his folly. And if these are minute bodies, and indeed solid, as they say, they certainly are able to fall under the notice of the eyes. If the nature of all things is the same, how is it that they compose various objects? They meet together, he says, in varied order and position as the letters which, though few in number, by variety of arrangement make up innumerable words. But it is urged the letters have a variety of forms. And so, he says, have these first principles; for they are rough, they are furnished with hooks, they are smooth. Therefore they can be cut and divided, if there is in them any part which projects. But if they are smooth and without hooks, they cannot cohere. They ought therefore to he hooked, that they may be linked together one with another. But since they are said to be so minute that they cannot be cut asunder by the edge of any weapon, how is it that they have hooks or angles? For it must be possible for these to be torn asunder, since they project. In the next place, by what mutual compact, by what discernment, do they meet together, so that anything may be constructed out of them? If they are without intelligence, they cannot come together in such order and arrangement; for nothing but reason can bring to accomplishment anything in accordance with reason. With how many arguments can this trifling be refuted! But I must proceed with my subject. This is he
Who surpassed in intellect the race of man, and quenched the light of all, as the ethereal sun arisen quenches the stars.
Which verses I am never able to read without laughter. For this was not said respecting Socrates or Plato, who are esteemed as kings of philosophers, but concerning a man who, though of sound mind and vigorous health, raved more senselessly than any one diseased.
The Christian tradition of mocking atheism continued into the seventeenth century, when Francis Bacon (1561-1626) penned his famous essay Of Atheism:
I had rather believe all the fables in the Legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind. And therefore, God never wrought miracle, to convince atheism, because his ordinary works convince it. It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion. For while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them, confederate and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity. Nay, even that school which is most accused of atheism doth most demonstrate religion; that is, the school of Leucippus and Democritus and Epicurus. For it is a thousand times more credible, that four mutable elements, and one immutable fifth essence, duly and eternally placed, need no God, than that an army of infinite small portions, or seeds unplaced, should have produced this order and beauty, without a divine marshal.
Christian ridicule of materialistic atheism in more recent times
In our own time, the Catholic thinker Gilbert Keith Chesterton made materialistic atheists the brunt of his ridicule in his 1908 classic, Orthodoxy. In chapter II, which is appropriately titled, “The Maniac,” Chesterton pokes fun at the lunacy to which determinism leads:
Now it is the charge against the main deductions of the materialist that, right or wrong, they gradually destroy his humanity; I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative, all that is human. For instance, when materialism leads men to complete fatalism (as it generally does), it is quite idle to pretend that it is in any sense a liberating force. It is absurd to say that you are especially advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free will. The determinists come to bind, not to loose. They may well call their law the “chain” of causation. It is the worst chain that ever fettered a human being. You may use the language of liberty, if you like, about materialistic teaching, but it is obvious that this is just as inapplicable to it as a whole as the same language when applied to a man locked up in a mad-house. You may say, if you like, that the man is free to think himself a poached egg. But it is surely a more massive and important fact that if he is a poached egg he is not free to eat, drink, sleep, walk, or smoke a cigarette. Similarly you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say “thank you” for the mustard.
The Christian apologist (and former atheist) C. S. Lewis did not spare atheists his ridicule, mocking the shallowness of their writings in his autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy. In a chapter titled, “The Shape of my Early Life,” Lewis wrote:
All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been blind as a bat not to have seen it long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader. George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity that he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it. Chesterton has more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too. Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed. On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete — Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire — all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called “tinny”. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them. They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining; but hardly more. There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books.
Now, it might be argued that since atheism is not a religious belief, it is a fair target for mockery. But there is a price to be paid for the right to mock anything, even unbelief: those who engage in mockery must expect to find themselves the target of it. Religious people who mock atheism must expect unbelievers to retaliate in kind – as indeed they have.
Of course, it is one thing to ask whether mockery of people’s most sacred beliefs is sometimes justifiable; but it is quite another to ask whether it is productive. One prominent atheist who does not think so is Jeffrey Jay Lowder, the co-founder and past President of Internet Infidels, who argues that it’s self-defeating to ridicule people’s religious beliefs; atheist blogger John Loftus has responded here and has defended the use of ridicule from a secular perspective at further length here. In my opinion, Lowder has a point when he argues that ridicule usually doesn’t change people’s minds; it just makes people more defensive. However, Loftus makes a valid point too, when he writes that ridicule can serve a valuable purpose by showing that the Emperor has no clothes. What both writers overlook, of course, is that modern atheism, with its concoction of an infinite number of multiverses in order to explain the apparent fine-tuning of our own universe, has rendered itself far more ridiculous than any Biblical story claiming that “all human woes stem from an incident in which a talking snake accosted a naked woman in a primeval garden and talked her into eating a piece of fruit,” as atheist Professor Keith Parsons derisively puts it in a post titled, How do you Solve a Problem like Fundamentalism? . For the Biblical story, pared down to its essentials, affirms something profound: that human suffering is the result of bad choices made by human beings (in this case, the first human beings, Adam and Eve, who made a fateful decision on behalf of the entire human race). What materialism tells us is something absurd: that libertarian free choice is an illusion, and that all of our voluntary actions are ultimately determined by circumstances beyond our control; and yet at the same time, we are supposed to believe that there are certain social norms that we ought to follow. Sorry, but the moral concept of “ought” doesn’t apply to robots: it does not compute.
Pascal on the virtue of ridicule
I’d like to close this post with a quote from the great Christian thinker Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who vigorously defended the use of ridicule against his theological opponents, the Jesuits, in his classic work, the Provincial Letters:
Do not then expect, fathers, to make people believe that it is unworthy of a Christian to treat error with derision. Nothing is easier than to convince all who were not aware of it before, that this practice is perfectly just—that it is common with the fathers of the Church, and that it is sanctioned by Scripture, by the example of the best of saints, and even by that of God himself.
Do we not find that God at once hates and despises sinners; so that even at the hour of death, when their condition is most sad and deplorable, Divine Wisdom adds mockery to the vengeance which consigns them to eternal punishment? “In interitu vestro ridebo et subsannabo — I will laugh at your calamity.”
The saints, too, influenced by the same feeling, will join in the derision; for, according to David, when they witness the punishment of the wicked, “they shall fear, and yet laugh at it — videbunt justi et timebunt, et super eum ridebunt.”
And Job says: “Innocens zubsannabit eos—The innocent shall laugh at them.”
…I am sure, fathers, these sacred examples are sufficient to convince you, that to deride the errors and extravagances of man is not inconsistent with the practice of the saints; otherwise we must blame that of the greatest doctors of the Church, who have been guilty of it — such as St Jerome, in his letters and writings against Jovinian, Vigilantius, and the Pelagians; Tertullian, in his Apology against the follies of idolaters; St Augustine against the monks of Africa, whom he styles “the hairy men;” St Irenaeus against the Gnostics; St Bernard and the other fathers of the Church, who, having been the imitators of the apostles, ought to be imitated by the faithful in all time coming; for, say what we will, they are the true models for Christians, even of the present day.
(From Pascal’s Provincial Letters, Letter XI, May 28, 1656.)
I will conclude my historical survey with a brief observation. Whatever one thinks of Pope Francis’ view that we should not mock the religious beliefs of others, one thing is certain: many leading Christian thinkers down the ages thought otherwise. Who is right is a subject which I shall leave for my readers to adjudicate.