The Indelicate Dawkins
Richard Dawkins is on record for saying the following,
Mock them. Ridicule them. In public. Don't fall for the convention that we are all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits. Religion makes specific claims about the universe that need to be substantiated, and need to be challenged, and if necessary need to be ridiculed with contempt.I do not wish to take him out of context, so I have listened to this speech. The speech is actually about not being ashamed of one's atheism: not being afraid to stand up for what you believe. While that is commendable, it is rather interesting that he ends on this point. It shows exactly what his thinking is.
He does not believe that one should stand up for one's beliefs because discussion leads to better understanding. He does not believe that one should stand up for one's beliefs because one has a voice and has a right to be heard. He does not believe that one should stand up for one's beliefs because one's beliefs can be tested and refined by engagement with other ideas. And he most certainly doesn't believe that one should stand up for one's beliefs because human beings are innately fallible, and you never know if you need to be corrected.
Instead, he believes that atheists should stand up for their beliefs so that others can be silenced, for he assumes that atheism always wins. While I can commend Dawkins and the many atheists who are like him for their confidence, I cannot commend them for their hubris. They cross this line by not merely assuming that they are right, but by assuming that their position is so self-evident that the opposing view does not need to be seriously considered or listened to (and therefore should be silenced). While I consider the atheist position to incorrect, I do believe that there is value in understanding where atheists are coming from because they are fellow human beings. Even if there is no merit to their position, by understanding it I would be in a better place to showing them where they err and gain a better understanding of my own beliefs as well. It is perhaps this inability to listen that causes Dawkins to only be taken seriously by those who already agree with him.
But Why Ridicule?
All of that said, it doesn't really address the question of what is the rhetorical value of ridicule. One could say that is to revel in their sense of self-superiority, but A) I am hesitant to psycho-analyze an entire group of people and B) if this was the only reason, I don't think they would admit to doing it. So from the atheists' perspective, I think it is intended to serve two purposes.
First, I think the fundamental justification for it, and this is reading between the lines of Dawkins, is that they feel if they demonstrate the ridiculousness of our beliefs, they might just shake us of our delusion, like Simon Cowell tried to do on American Idol. However since this never actually works (because a belief in God isn't logically ridiculous and most of their insults are straw men), there must be another reason for why they would openly use it as a rhetorical strategy.
I think this strategic purpose is what rhetoricians call poisoning the well. Poisoning the well is attempting to discredit a particular side before that side is able to speak. In this sense, they are attempting to create in the public consciousness the belief that religious people are stupid or deluded and thus shouldn't be listened to. In other words, it isn't really about changing the perspective of the person that are talking with, but influencing the culture to disregard religion.
Ridicule In Action
Peter Atkins Vs. John Lennox
One of the more shocking examples of this that I have witnessed is a conversation between two Oxford professors, atheist chemist Peter Atkins and Christian mathematician John Lennox, which was called "Dueling Professors" (You can be find it on Youtube). John Lennox is one of my favorite people, period, while Peter Atkins has struck me as being quite pompous in previous things that I have read by him or watched of him.
But the level of malevolence and spite that came from Professor Atkins in this video is simply stunning. He makes incredibly few actual arguments throughout the conversation, and usually simply scoffs or belittles Professor Lennox. One definitely hears Atkins' raspy voice far more than Lennox's simply because Atkins constantly interrupts him. He even dips into racism as he reduces the fact of Lennox's faith down to him being Irish, which he follows up with "Get em' while their young".
While ridicule is fairly constant in atheist rhetoric, I must admit that this is the worst example I know. What is striking about it is that I don't think either of them come out of this conversation strong. It simply feels like Atkins bullying Lennox, rather than anything constructive. And this is how I feel about most of these examples: it makes Christians look weak, and Atheists look like jerks. I might add that Lennox has held his own against Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. It is simply difficult to present one's positions when one is not allowed to speak.
Richard Dawkins Vs. William Lane Craig
One of the more curious examples of ridicule is the interaction between Dr. Richard Dawkins and Dr. William Lane Craig, or should I say the lack there of. William Lane Craig is easily the most respected and formidable Christian apologist alive today, and yet Dawkins, who claims to be able to easily trounce any Christian and who claims that he has never received a good answer to his arguments, refuses to debate with him.*
To me, this is fascinating. I honestly don't care if Dawkins ever does debate Craig one-on-one, though I would certainly enjoy watching it. But what is interesting is how Dawkins justifies it. He usually does so by trying to debase Dr. Craig.
One excuse is that he doesn't debate Creationists, even though Dr. Craig isn't a Creationist. Another is that Dr. Craig had the audacity to morally defend Israel's invasion of Canaan, even though that is just a basic tenant of believing in the Bible. Also he has attempted to discredit his credentials, such as calling him Mister instead of Doctor (though he has two doctorates, on in philosophy and one in theology), and joke that he is a nobody, even though he clearly isn't.
Now personally, I think there is a good reason for Dawkins to not debate Craig, even if Dawkins would win (which I don't actually think he would). Dr. Craig's reason for debating is to demonstrate that it is possible to be an intelligent person and still be a Christian. Dr. Dawkins' purpose is try and demonstrate religion to be foolish. Even if Dawkins were to win a debate against Craig, Dr. Craig still wouldn't make a fool of himself, and I that is against Dawkins general goals.
Overall, I think Dawkins believes that win or lose, Craig would gain more prestige and would be more well known if they debated, and he doesn't want that. However, this doesn't excuse him poisoning the well whenever the subject arises.
The End Result
Well the goal of this rhetoric is to demonstrate that the atheist is intellectually superior, but it also tends to make them look like jerks. However, I think to them that is a reasonable trade-off. Part of the point after all is that facts are facts, and if we don't like them, we are just in denial. It makes us question our own offenses, thinking, "Am I offended because they are doing something wrong, or because I have a prejudice that they are exposing?"
I've come to the point where I have tested my prejudices enough to know the difference. Absolutely there are some things that they say that make me feel uncomfortable because they are good points, like the Bible justifying certain things that our culture doesn't like (and visa versa) or when a Christian person or group does something unChristlike. These are things which are uncomfortable for me to deal with, and it is frustrating to have to go over them multiple times.
However, there is also plenty that they say and do that is just plain childish and naive, like equivocating all religons, name-calling, or judging their opponents by the worst adherents while judging their own by the best. Sometimes the frustration to the first case can mask our proper indignation and annoyance at the second. This masking is something that they are relying on, disguising bad arguments as us having trouble facing the hard facts.
It is amazing how well this actually works, especially considering how childish it really is. It reminds me of mud-slinging in political campaigns, where everyone knows they are being manipulated by them, yet statistics show that they work! It is the basic fact that just because they are manipulating you, it doesn't mean they don't have a point. So you listen to them anyway, even though you know that a large chunk of what they are saying is mere posturing and propaganda.
As Christians, we combat this by sticking to core arguments and being well educated. They might be able to convince everyone that they are smart, but they need help from us to convince people that we are dumb. Having just a bit of intellectual chops can be enough to at least dispel the illusion of intellectual superiority enough for people to hear you when you point out that their arguments don't actually hold water. It also doesn't hurt to demonstrate how childish they are really being.
*In 2010 both Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Richard Dawkins were in a panel debate in Mexico on the question of "Does the Universe have a purpose?". This exception to Dawkins' general refusal to debate Craig seems to be connected to the fact that Dawkins was a last minute replacement of someone else. According to Dr. Craig, Dr. Dawkins didn't know that Dr. Craig was also on the panel until he arrived at the event. I haven't heard this from Dawkins' own mouth, but it seems probable.