Reddit, Ridicule, and the Usefulness of Memes

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. – Thomas Jefferson

There are two types of people in the world: Those who ridicule ridiculous ideas, and those who “Tone Police” the perpetrators of ridicule.  This problem is fairly acute on /r/atheism, where intellectual treatises often take a backseat to quick witicisms of “Memes,” one-liners, and recycled straw men, making it a cesspool of ridicule.  There is also a daily barrage of Tone Police, who seek to derail said ridicule, and get back to speaking in 17th century language, since this is the only effective way to change people’s minds.

To Hell with that; I’m with Jefferson.

There is an appropriate time for ridicule: whenever any idea is ridiculous, and with most religions, that time is always.  Incidentally, today is my Cake day,

The Usefulness of Ridicule

Tone Police often point out that any use of ridicule circumvents the underlying goal of changing someone’s mind.  The problem here is the lack of evidence for their conviction, in light of what we know about psychology, it is demonstrably false.  No one likes to hold what society believes are ridiculous ideas.

Ridicule engages the same notions for peer acceptance, and can easily be used to sway opinions. Often, the most hard-headed of erroneous ideas may be dislodged with some peer-pressured coaxing (ridicule) to allow one’s critical thinking engines to engage.  This is how the mind works.

In my own case, the re-examination of my beliefs was predicated on someone ridiculing God, calling him a sky-fairy, and comparing him to the notion of Santa Clause.  Said person also gave me a book on evolutionary psychology, which helped me understand evolution in a way I’d never thought about before, and eventually led to my deconversion.  All this questioning started with ridicule.

Straw Men or Salient Points

Another common objection put forward by Tone Police is that many times, memes and the like are simply a Straw Man of the actual theological position of God.  Take the below conversation between the self-ascribed “God” of Facebook and another Facebooker.

The beauty of “God” here, is that he acts very similarly to the God described in the bible.  Most theology holds that God is omnipotent, and need not obey his own rules or those that we wish He followed.  “God”s response above is very much a carbon copy of Job 40:

8“Will you really annul My judgment?
Will you condemn Me that you may be justified?

9“Or do you have an arm like God,
And can you thunder with a voice like His?

As job begins to hold God accountable (in the story), God answers along the lines of “Shut up. I make the rules. You have no authority to judge me.”

Also in Romans 9, Paul makes an identical excuse on God’s behalf:

19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” 20 But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?

Theologically, the idea that God can be as crude and abominible as He wants (with no recourse from humans) is salient, and the comic makes that blindingly clear in a way that goes against the sensibilities of most theists.

Of course this poses a problem when using the tool of ridicule: if something is a straw man, it can serve to undermine actual critical thought.  However, if as in the above case, the snark is an honest and accurate commentary on some theological truism, the ridicule becomes poignantly useful for identifying the logical conclusions of the truism.  In the above case: God is a self-absorbed monster, and has no reason to follow laws made for mortals.

Religion’s Ridicule Self-Defense

Because of the power of ridicule, many religions have inbuilt defenses against it.  In the case of Islam, ridicule or speaking ill of the prophet Mohammad results in fatwas.  As far as ridicule defense, this one is pretty good.  Christianity (along with Judaism) pose a different system: be proud of people when they laugh at you.  The idea is summarized in  the sermon on the mount, Matthew 5:

11“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 12“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The idea of the persecution complex is familiar to many, and when taken to its extreme results in things like Westboro Baptist Church and Street Preachers, who have completely immunized themselves to their peer’s criticisms.  Such is the danger of taking pride in ridicule, and thankfully many religious do not operate in that mindset.

Memes and the Mind

The wonderful thing about memes is that they’re short and to-the-point.  Brevity is the soul of wit, and I’m not very good at quick thoughts that strike to the core of the absurdity inherent in religion.  The above comic points out the fact that the God of the bible acts capricious, jealous, and has the moral fibre of a two-year-old who whines and smites over petty nothings.

Furthermore, it goes against the sensibilities of many to realize God is an arrogant self-important prick who can do whatever he wants, and abides by zero laws he made for himself (other than requiring blood sacrifice for his own screw-ups, at least).

I could write for hours on this topic, but these memes do in one photograph with superimposed text what authors have been explaining for centuries.  That is their power, and it is a power to be used with care.  These ideas lodge themselves in the mind, only to later blossom as critical thinking.  When creating an avenue for new critical thinking pathways, I am all for using simple, snarky, comical memes, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, South Park, just as much as I am for using detailed dialogue and treatise.

I find no reason to discount one for the other.

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