Understanding Why New Atheists Mock

As we have seen, ridicule and mockery of the religious are key components of the New Atheist Movement. According to John Loftus, “It’s not just the so-called “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, and PZ Myers who advocate ridicule. I do too (see below). So does Richard Carrier, as does Stephen Law.” Hemant Mehta says, “We should absolutely mock religion.”  The ridicule not only come from the writings of the New Atheists, but they also engage in such tactics with their memes and their YouTube videos.

As we know, the mockery and ridicule is part of a socio-political plan, meaning that it is propaganda. Wiki defines propaganda as follows:

Propaganda is information that is not impartial and used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively (perhaps lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or using loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information presented.

Clearly, the ridicule/mockery is “used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda” and to “produce an emotional rather than a rational response.” Thus, a movement that postures as if it champions reason is actually relying on propaganda, demonstrating the so-called committment to reason is a sham.

Yet there is another aspect to the ridicule/mockery – it represents aggression. In their research paper, Leslie M. Janes and James M. Olson survey some of the psychological theories about the use of ridicule. New Atheist propaganda would qualify as an example of disparagement humor, whch is defined “as humorous material in which one party is victimized, belittled, humiliated, or suffers some misfortune or act of aggression (Zillmann, 1983). Most disparagement humor targets groups or members of groups (e.g., women, ethnic groups, lawyers) rather than individuals.”

One theory that attempts to explain the use of disparagement humor is Superiority theory. Janes and Olson quote Thomas Hobbes:

Many centuries later, Thomas Hobbes, who is often considered the “father” of modern humor theory, hypothesized that amusement and laughter are the result of the glory we feel when we favorably compare ourselves with less fortunate others (Hobbes, 1651/1968). Hobbes noted “It is no wonder therefore that men take heinously to be laughed at or derided, that is, triumphed over”

Seen in this light, New Atheist mocking also functions to prop up the New Atheist ego. To mock the religious allows the New Atheists to feel they have “triumphed over” the religious without having to engage in any serious intellectual dialog. And as we have seen, New Atheist leaders are not seriously interested in dialog:

What about the many of us who feel that the best thing for science—and humanity as a whole—is not respectful dialogue with evangelical Christians, but the eradication of evangelical Christianity? The sooner that religion goes away, the sooner these ills will abate. “Dialoguing” with evangelical Christians (and granted, not all of them hold the beliefs I’ve just mentioned) only enables superstition—a superstition that, one would think, would be resolutely opposed by a scientific organization like the AAAS. – Jerry Coyne

Janes and Olson then cite a researcher who thinks disparagement humor is aggression:

Charles Gruner (1997) is a modern advocate of the superiority theory of humor. He proposes that all humor, no matter how seemingly innocuous, contains hostility and aggression. This perspective would seem at odds with the existence of humor that appears nonaggressive. For example, puns and limericks often use clever wordplay to amuse. Or humor can be used to poke fun at oneself, or to comment on the absurdities of life. Yet Gruner maintains that aggression toward others and triumphing over them is an essential aspect of humor, at least implicitly: “Successful humor…must include winning” (1997, p. 9).

The aggressive aspect of ridicule/mocking can’t reasonably be denied when we combine the superiority theory with disposition theory, as Janes and Olson explain:

we are entertained by the misfortunes of others, but also stipulates that our relationship to the target of the humor affects the degree of our enjoyment of the humor. Specifically, we are more entertained by the disparagement of targets we dislike or members of an out-group, as opposed to targets we like or members of our in-group (e.g., La Fave, 1972; Wicker, Baron, & Willis, 1980). For example, in an early experiment on humor, Wolff, Smith, and Murray (1934) presented anti-Jewish jokes to both Jewish and non-Jewish participants. Perhaps not surprisingly, they found that the non-Jewish participants enjoyed the jokes more than the Jewish participants.

This clearly applies to the New Atheists, who specifically target the religious (the out-group) for all their mocking. We can appreciated the aggresive dimension to this by simply considering whether racial or ethnic jokes are aggresive? Why is it socially unacceptable to tell racial or ethnic jokes? Because we recognize the jokes are attacks on groups of people and thus represent acts of aggression toward those groups.

Finally, the New Atheist propaganda is trying to tap into what is known as Social Identity theory:

Social identity theory assumes that people want to maintain a positive identity, including a positive social identity. One way to achieve a positive social identity is by judging one‟s own groups to be superior to other groups. In fact, researchers have found that individuals will try to create a positive social identity by treating members of in-groups more favorably than members of out-groups (e.g., Tajfel, 1970). Clearly, a motivation to perceive one‟s in-groups as superior to out-groups can be served by disparaging humor about those out-groups. Thus, social identity theory provides a motivational account of why people enjoy disparagement humor (Bourhis, R.Y., Nicholas, J.G., Howard, G., & Henri, T. 1977; Ferguson & Ford, 2008). For example, evidence that members of ethnic groups find humor about other ethnic groups funnier than humor about their own ethnic group (e.g., La Fave, 1972; Wicker et al., 1980; Wolff et al., 1934) may reflect perceivers‟ desires to create or maintain a positive social identity.”

Janes and Olson then did some experiments, where one of the results confirms that the New Atheist propaganda would be effective:

Our research documents two, contrasting effects of ridicule. First, observing ridicule of others has inhibiting effects—it motivates people to be “wary” in their behavior. The thought of being the target of ridicule oneself is aversive enough to inhibit people from standing out (e.g., they conform to the perceived opinions of others)……Our research shows that those who merely observe others being ridiculed are affected by it—even when they are in no danger of being the target of ridicule themselves. Witnessing another person being ridiculed leads observers to avoid behavior that might stand out; they choose, instead, to “play it safe”.

The fact that New Atheism is saturated with disparagement humor gives us four useful insights about the New Atheists

1. There seems to be a need to “feel superior” among the Gnus and the disparagement humor serves those needs. For not only do the Gnus get the sense of “tiumph” with their mocking, they are trying to send a message to the “fence sitters” (as Dawkins calls them) that the New Atheists are the “cool kids” on the block. All of this, of course, suggests that despite all the posturing and chest-thumping, New Atheists are nursing some level of insecurity.

2. It explains why they so commonly rely on straw man arguments. Anyone who has ever interacted with the Gnus knows that the straw man argument is the meat-and-pototoes of New Atheism. The straw men play vital roles in the Gnu movement, for not only does triumphing over a straw man feed the sense of superiority, but straw men are oh so much more easier to mock and ridicule.

3. It helps to confirm a thesis I have proposed for some time now – the New Atheists are closed minded about religion and the existence of God. Once you have reached the point where you are part of a movement that aggressively ridicules theism and religion, it is simply not reasonable to think you any longer have an open mind about such issues. For it is the closed-minded that allows one to boldly go on the attack. Furthermore, the disparagement humor helps to reinforce the closed-mind. The sense of superiority one gets from mocking religion is a way of reassuring oneself their anti-religious and anti-God mindset is correct. The more you mock, the more superior you feel, especially when surrounded by a community who appreciated your mocking. And the more superior you feel, the more permanent the closed mind. Consider how John Loftus rationalizes the use of disparagement humor:

we have earned the right to use it because we have produced the arguments. That is, because we know Christianity is a delusion, and since deluded people cannot usually be argued out of their faith because they were never argued into it in the first place, the use of persuasion techniques like ridicule are rationally justifiable. So satire, ridicule and mockery are weapons that should be in our arsenal in this important cultural war of ideas.

When you think you KNOW Christianity is a delusion, your mind is closed. Locked, bolted, and nailed shut. Since the issue is settled, once and for, the closed mind engages in the next logical step – the “culture war.”

4. It provides further evidence that the New Atheists are modern day examples of militant atheists. Atheists tend to mock the notion they are militant because they don’t go out and blow things up or shoot people which would be highly counterproductive for their movement). But that’s just the Gnus leaning on their straw men again. You don’t have to be physically aggressive to be militant. Verbal aggression, backed up with a constant stream of aggresive disparagement humor, as part of their “arsenal in this important cultural war of ideas,” is more than sufficient to merit the label of being “militant.”

Summary: New Atheists routinely engage in disparagement humor as part of their propagandistic war on religion. When their behavior is considered in the light of psychology, we learn some interesting facts about the New Atheists: a) they feel the need to be superior; b) their reliance on straw man arguments makes perfect sense; c) they come to the table from a position of militant, closed-mindedness, interested not in understanding, but only triumph. This is the group that tries to sell itself as the champions of reason and science.

[A slightly different version of this essay was posted on Feb 28, 2015]

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6 Responses to Understanding Why New Atheists Mock

  1. Vox Maximus says:

    Not to OT the thread, but speaking of humor and a little bit of lite ribbing at the expense of atheists, this cartoon might be on interest:

    http://voxmaximus.blogspot.com/2016/05/smart-ass-cartoons-then-miracle.html

    Maximus
    http://www.voxmaximus.blogspot.com

  2. Marius says:

    What does Gnu stand for? Is it an abbreviation, or a comparison to an animal?

  3. Kevin says:

    “Gnu” is a spin on “New” in “New Atheist”. It was started by New Atheists themselves because some of them object to the term “New Atheist” (a phrase coined by an agnostic, not theists). So they started calling themselves Gnus, which makes it fair game for everyone else to call them that, as well.

  4. G. Rodrigues says:

    @Marius:

    “What does Gnu stand for?”

    Gnu is the recursive acronym for Gnu is Not Unix and is tied to the open source software movement (google it up). On this basis, the name was then co-opted — forgot who first did the co-opting — by the New Atheist movement.

  5. TFBW says:

    Here, let me Google “Gnu Atheist” for you. The Pharyngula Wiki has the best coverage of the term and its origins.

  6. Marius says:

    Thank you for your replies. I was unfamiliar with the usage of this term.

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