How and When Should You Use Ridicule, If At All? It Depends on Your Goals

I think it’s self-defeating for philosophers who want to engage in genuine inquiry to use ridicule. If one’s primary goal is to be an apologist first and a philosopher second (such as William Lane Craig), then I think ridicule can change some minds while alienating others. (By mentioning his name, I’m not claiming that he does, in fact, use ridicule. I’m simply stating that he is a philosopher who primarily seems to act as an apologist.) I think it’s an open question whether using ridicule as a tactic provides an overall more favorable result than not using ridicule, since ridicule may turn some of your target audience against you by causing them to feel defensive.

For example, if your target audience includes 100 people, maybe using reason and ridicule will change the minds of 10 people while alienating the other 90. In contrast, if you had used only reason, maybe you would have changed the minds of 15 people without alienating anyone. In that case, you would have been better off without using ridicule, despite the fact that it changed people’s minds. I don’t know. I haven’t seen any empirical evidence to show that ridicule produces the overall best result. If anyone has such evidence, I’d love to see it.

Depending on the circumstances, I might ridicule young-earth creationism since I don’t take that belief seriously and I am not trying to change the minds of anyone who holds that belief. If I did ridicule that belief, however, I would do so fully aware that I might be alienating the people who hold that belief.

I also think there is ridicule and then there is ridicule. My friend Julia Sweeney does (or did?) a great routine called “Letting Go of God.” That might (?) be considered ridicule. If it is, it’s in good taste. Some material by George Carlin probably also fits into this category. On the other hand, there is ridicule which is mean-spirited. I would never choose to engage in mean-spirited ridicule.

So the question of ridicule isn’t a simplistic black-and-white, all-or-nothing issue. There are many factors to take into account.

Here’s a link to my draft paper, “Atheistic Advocacy as a Risk Communication Problem.”


Our own Keith Parsons wrote an excellent comment in the combox which deserves which special mention:


And in a follow-up comment, Parsons explains that his goal was to expand on my points, not contradict them.