Shaming Believers?

Dawkins' 'Proposal'

A post over at Thoughtful Faith discusses Dawkins not infrequently given bit of advice to shame and mock believers in an attempt to, let’s be frank, coerce them out of their beliefs – such behaviour is repellent to me.  Now, as an atheist, I will disagree with the author about virtually everything, but the responses offered by the atheists in the comments section were disappointing to me – so it seems that it falls to me to play the part of the dissenting atheist.  There were three basic lines of response: 1) theists do it to us and turn-about is fair play; and 2) satire (i.e. mockery) does a very good job of revealing the failings of institutions and beliefs, so is a legitimate tool in the struggle against religious belief; and 3) religious belief is so harmful that these sorts of tactics are entirely acceptable.  I think that all these arguments are wrong in their own way and do not, individually or collectively, justify the mistreatment of theists.  Moreover, Dawkins and those who support such measures are, in any case, simply wrong about the effectiveness of shaming as a strategy to change people’s minds.

As for the first vein of response, that turn-about is fair play, I have the following to say.  There are atheists out there who really and truly were badly treated by religious doctrines, individuals, or institutions.  These people may feel anger towards the source of their pain, anger that may be completely justified, but this does not justify one’s own becoming an aggressor or victimizer even if one’s new belief set is more correct or overall leading to a better life.  Remember that it is not Believer-x who harmed you, it was some particular believer(s) who did (and who are the rightful targets of one’s anger).  Furthermore, it should be remembered that attacks on believers will be attacks on people who are, per hypothesis, in the grip of delusion and at risk for precisely the same maltreatment as once was one’s own fate – it would be ridiculous to abuse a slave for refusing to rebel, would it not?

Turning to the question of satire and its effectiveness, there is not much to say.  I am in complete agreement that satire is a useful and effective tool for the pointing out of bad institutions and beliefs.  But what Dawkins is suggesting isn’t (only) that we satirize the Catholic Church (an institution that richly deserves it) or its officials (horny nuns and gay priests, etc.), but that we also just mock individual believers, wherever we find them.  I shouldn’t have to point this out, but there is a difference here – the one is an attack on an ideology, the other an attack on people.  We want to change the ideas, not hurt people.

Finally, there is the suggestion that because religious beliefs motivate such dangerous behaviour as suicide-bombings and wars, aggressive tactics are entirely legitimate.  I should only point out the inconsistency in that suggestion.  If believers are dangerous because of their belief set, and you attack them and those beliefs, you have just signalled not merely that you disagree, but that you are an enemy.  From this two things follow.  First, you will be provoking the sort of dangerous behaviour you claim to want less of in the world.  Second, you will have made yourself a target.

All this brings me, at last, to question the very notion that mockery is an effective strategy for changing people’s minds.  I think Dawkins is letting his obvious disdain for those who think differently than himself cloud his judgement (as he frequently does).  Mockery and shaming do represent extremely powerful tools for maintaining cohesion in human social groups, but this is because those at whom the treatment is directed already belong to the group.  Social ostracism is an in-group mechanism and it has precisely the wrong effect on members of out-groups.  With members of out-groups, such tactics will only drive them deeper into the fold and strengthen the division between the two groups.  Mockery and shaming, then, are the wrong ways to go about changing minds – but they feel really good to use, since they feed two human, all too human psychological needs for group-identification and feelings of superiority.

I close with verses 3 – 5 from “The Pairs”, found in the Dhammapada:

“He abused me, mistreated me, defeated me, robbed me.” Harboring such thoughts keeps hatred alive.

“He abused me, mistreated me, defeated me, robbed me.” Releasing such thoughts banished hatred for all time.

Animosity does not eradicate animosity.  Only by loving kindness is animosity dissolved.  This law is ancient and eternal.