Understanding Why New Atheists Rely On Ridicule

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.” 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 they have told us, 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 appreciate 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.

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15 Responses to Understanding Why New Atheists Rely On Ridicule

  1. TFBW says:

    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.

    Straw men and similar forms of informal logical fallacy are a real sweet spot for New Atheist sophistry. Not only do they provide the advantages mentioned here, but they also allow the speaker to retain the appearance of making an argument while doing so (because such fallacies usually slip through the net, undetected). That’s the more subtle aspect of the issue — the second side of the coin. The mockery must serve its primary purpose of making the opposition look unattractive, but it’s a double-win if it also serves to improve the image of the speaker’s position at the same time. In simple terms, “make them look dumb and us look smart.”

  2. stcordova says:

    Thanks Michael. I have nothing to add.

  3. Dhay says:

    Here’s John Loftus telling his readers why “Without a Doubt the End of Christianity is Assured in the Future”:

    Human beings will evolve into different sorts of creatures, perhaps like the Na’vi of James Cameron’s movie Avatar. Then the Bible will clearly be an antiquated book. The salvation of the human race and the incarnation of the second person of the trinity will have no relevance for the creatures we are yet to become. Christianity will fall into the dustbin of history just like all other dead religions. Too bad this assured end is far off into the future. But it WILL happen, just as assuredly as I am writing this today in the year 2011.


    That first sentence deserves a “Yeah? Why?” And even should I grant that colonising other planets or genetic engineering might introduce variety (or that the variety is sequential) every subsequent sentence there looks like a non-sequitur deserving its separate “Yeah? Why?”

    That the Bible will “clearly” be an antiquated book is a belief Loftus holds without producing evidence or reason, an example of what Loftus would derogatively term “faith”. Ditto the rest. It’s a paragraph full of irrational beliefs.

    It looks to me like Loftatheism is a delusion.

  4. John Branyan says:

    Part of the difficulty in engaging with Gnus is their actual beliefs seem like strawmen. In my experience, they aren’t aware of the dreadful illogic of their own positions. All of their comments are ad hominem and mockery. When they actually do try to assert a point they throw a billion word “salad” into the dialogue. It is a painstaking process to parse their comments and find the essence of their “argument”. When you succinctly articulate their position, the flaws are obvious even to the atheists. That’s when they’ll accuse you of “misrepresenting” them.

  5. Dhay says:

    Investigating further, I find this commentary on John Loftus’ deconversion, as related in his book Why I Became An Atheist; summarising the full section — I have quoted parts — it looks like Loftus was caught in an extra-marital affair (which he seems to blame on both his mistress and his wife), discovered the universe is more than 6,000 years old, and finally deconverted after a couple of years of mulling that over; but it wasn’t the evidence that deconverted him, so presumably it was his rejection by one or more of mistress, wife, other ministers, and cousin “Jeff” (whoever he was):

    Loftus starts off reminiscing on his deconversion story by stating that it was an appeal to the emotions, and not so much for intellectual reasons: “Some former believers have rejected their faith based upon the evidence itself. My initial reasons for rejecting the Christian faith are not the same ones that others have had…For me there were three major circumstances that happened in my life that changed my thinking. … associated with three people: A woman I’ll call Linda, Larry, and Jeff. It was Linda who brought a major crisis into my life. Larry brought new information into my life. Jeff took away my sense of a loving Christian community…” (first paragraph, pg. 25)

    … “I was the founding president of a shelter for the homeless in Angola, Indiana, where I was ministered. It was devoted to giving temporary shelter to people in need. I worked day by day with Linda, the executive director. She practically idolized me. She did everything I said to do, and would call me daily to ask for help in dealing with various situations that came up from running the shelter, along with her own personal issues. I was also having problems with my marriage at the time, and Linda made herself available to me. I succumbed and had an affair with her…”

    … “a former stripper in her younger days” who “had it in for preachers.” … “But when someone like me does succumb to such a temptation, even if it wasn’t exactly the same [as Potipher’s seductress wife], these preachers are quick to condemn me…”

    John expands further on the process of his deconversion by involving his two cousins, Larry and Jeff, respectively. … “I handed [Larry] a book arguing for creation over evolution and asked him to look at it and let me know what he thought of it. After several months, he wrote me a thirty-one-page letter … This was the first time I really considered the theological implications of the age of the universe. Two corollaries of that idea started me down the road to being the atheist I am today…”

    I’m sorry, what? Didn’t John say something about his deconversion not being based on any scientific evidence?

    “…Some former believers rejected their faith based upon the evidence itself. My initial arguments for rejecting the Christian faith are not the same ones that others have had…”

    … “Nearly two years later, I came to deny the Christian faith. It required too much intellectual gerrymandering to believe..”


    Looks like Loftus deconverted from Christianity for the Loftus version of ‘Evidence, Science and Reason’ — which is not yours and mine, nor the Reason Rally version either — which seems to be resentment and anger, emotional reaction.


    A bit later in that same article there’s Loftus’ reason why he subsequently decided to dedicate his life to anti-Christian polemics:

    “I want it known by everyone that it was Holding who initially motivated me to debunk Christianity by how he treated me. I decided that I would aim for the jugular vein of a faith that could be used by him to justify his treatment of me. It’s to him that I’m indebted to for initially motivating me to do what I’m doing today…” (Taken from a blog comment found on “Debunking Christianity” posted 3:43 PM, July 22, 2009).


    Ah yes, it was plain old-fashioned hatred and revenge that made him a New Atheist polemicist, it was nothing to do with ‘Science and Reason’.

  6. Michael says:

    In my experience, they aren’t aware of the dreadful illogic of their own positions.

    I think some are. They just don’t care. The ends justify the means. If illogical arguments net them more points than they cost in their culture war, then so be it. It’s not as if they are grounded in principles.

  7. Michael says:

    Ah yes, it was plain old-fashioned hatred and revenge that made him a New Atheist polemicist, it was nothing to do with ‘Science and Reason’.

    Nice find. Archive that one with Coyne’s deconversion story. 😉

    Most people become atheists for emotional reasons. That’s why emotion plays a huge role when it comes to maintaining their atheism.

  8. stcordova says:

    I must admit, however, Michael, your essay explains why I enjoy mocking certain groups when warranted. Maybe that doesn’t say good things about me as a person, but that whole passage about Triumph — yeah I love rubbing it in. As far as insecurity as being the reason for this behavior on my part? Yes, indeed. I celebrate because in the back of my mind, I wasn’t certain I was right. When I have evidence I was right, I will take a victory lap. It’s bad sportsmanship, but that’s me. At some level your essay described some unsavory aspects of my temperament.

    That said, I couldn’t do some of the stuff New Atheist do and still live with my self. “End justify the means?” Not me. I still have a conscience. Thank God.

  9. Dhay says:

    Here’s from an Amazon customer review of John Loftus’ Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity:

    With the weight of information in this book one would receive the impression that it was all these “intellectual” arguments that brought Loftus to reject Christianity. However, on page 30 we read :

    “I often ask myself why Christians don’t seem to act any better than others when they alone claim to have the power, wisdom and guidance of God right there within them…This was the last blow to my faith and one of the reasons why I am an atheist today.”

    In fact, the whole chapter on his deconversion is wrought with emotion and leaves virtually no trace of intellectual struggles.


    Yep, a deconversion powered by emotion, not by intellect.

  10. Dhay says:

    And another:

    It would be more persuasive and powerful if the author didn’t commit those “sins” and got “expelled” from the Christian circle before he became an atheist. I am not for Christian. I consider myself agnostic. This book is a bit too technical for me with a lot of arguments and I don’t really like arguments. I do appreciate the information.


    Some of those early deconversion story pages of John Loftus’ book are pre-viewable on Amazon, so I took a look. The start of the passages quoted by my source in my previous response is on Page 24. Page 25 didn’t show, but Pages 26+ did, and are interesting.

    On Page 26 Loftus claims he told Linda that the affair was over, and that when he did so, “Hell has no fury like a woman scorned” and she told the shelter’s board of directors Loftus had raped her, she went with Loftus’ former associate minister to “the prosecutor” (not the police? odd!) to press charges — though none were brought either against himself nor against Linda for false accusation, perjury or obstructing justice — and she called Jerry Paul, Loftus’ home minister (whatever one of them is), to accuse Loftus of rape, the which call another minister heard of, so it got around.

    Loftus relates on Page 29 that Cousin Jeff did not want to be ousted by Loftus as minister of his church, which he suspected Loftus was trying to do; Loftus claims total innocence, he had not the slightest intention; but despite evidently wanting to remain in post, Jeff did leave the church and he (and at least one Elder, too) blamed Loftus: evidently Loftus had made Jeff’s ministry intolerable.

    Loftus denies wanting or effecting the ousting of Jeff; nonetheless, Jeff was duly ousted. To me, Loftus’ denial of culpability stinks, and I personally wonder, as I am so doubtful about Loftus’ account of the Jeff part of his story what credence I should give the various aspects of Loftus’ account of the Linda parts of the story.

    As regards the Amazon reviewer’s comment that Loftus ‘was “expelled” from the Christian community before he became an atheist’, I note that he was not “expelled” purely because of his admitted (sin) of adultery. It becomes very evident on reading through the deconversion story, even as related self-sympathetically by Loftus, that Loftus sowed disunity and discord in every church he mentions, whether he was minister there, whether he was a sacked minister attending his former church — no he was sacked before the Linda story hit the fan — or whether he was attending the other of the closest chuches, was teaching in college or was at cousin Jeff’s church. Everywhere Loftus went he sowed controversy, discord, infighting and disunity.


    But Loftus portrays himself as the perpetual innocent victim.

  11. Dhay says:

    John Loftus > So satire, ridicule and mockery are weapons that should be in our arsenal in this important cultural war of ideas.

    In the blog post that’s from Loftus tells us of five famous satires from history which successfully ridiculed their targets, starting with:

    There have been some very famous satires in history. Here are five important ones:

    1) Aristophanes’s Greek comedy The Clouds, portrays Socrates as a buffoon and a deceiver of the young. It was the first comedy “of ideas” and was a contributing factor in the trial and death of Socrates.


    There you are, then: satire, ridicule and mockery successfully helped persuade the Athenians to kill the all-time-great philosopher Socrates.

    If it can achieve such a worthwhile end, it must be good, mustn’t it.

  12. unclesporkums says:

    Probably approves of the “killing” part, as well.

  13. Dhay says:

    As regards Socrates, John Loftus has recently said:

    We also need others who effectively practice Street Epistemology, which confronts believers … pretending to know what they don’t know, much like the Sophists did in the days of Socrates. Socrates was considered wise precisely because he knew that he didn’t know, as the Delphic Oracle said of him.


    I reflect that if Socrates or a worthy successor were to encounter a Street Epistemologist, the SE would be left thoroughly perplexed and confused, stripped of their own certainties.


    Further down I see some Loftus pseudoscience:

    The brains of believers in general, but more importantly the brains of Christian sophisticates treat questions about their beliefs just like they do with physical threats.

    I’ve seen a version of this before; and dismissed it as very unscientific:

    “What the study revealed was that the same part of the brain that responds to a PHYSICAL threat also responds to an INTELLECUAL one. This area of the brain is known as the amygdala.”

    Yeah, yeah. For the full dismissal see:


    Loftus doesn’t know his science from his elbow.

  14. Pingback: Proof of God in DNA: Information (Part 2) – Derek L. Ramsey

  15. You’re right when you say that ridicule is aggressive. It reminds me of Goliath going against David.
    All it took was one smooth stone to bring the giant down.
    The point is, you don’t always need a huge argument to make your point. Let the truth speak for itself – that is, if you really care about truth and not just pushing an agenda.

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