Mark Mercer offers a strong explanation not only for why religion should not be exempt from mockery and satire, but in fact why it's important that religion be a target sometimes:
There's much to be said against making fun of religion and religious believers, and certainly some instances of mockery are puerile, intemperate, or noxious. But what can't be said against it is that it is cruel. It's not, at least not in the way making fun of the lame or the dim is cruel. Neither the lame nor the dim chose their condition, and they cannot choose to escape it. That's not true of the religious.
Making fun of religion is like making fun of bad taste. It's making fun of something that's up to individuals themselves, something for which individuals are willing to take responsibility. It's open to the religious believer, just as it is to the connoisseur of felt paintings, to disabuse her critics of their false evaluation of her attitudes.
Actually, I'm not sure to what degree the average religious believer is willing to "take responsibility" for the religious doctrines they believe, the religious institutions they are members of and support financially, or the religious leaders they follow and thereby give power and authority to. I can't begin to count how often I've seen religious believers disparage civil rights protections for gays on the argument that homosexuality is "chosen" without recognizing that religion is far more like a "chosen" set of behaviors than it is like an inherent characteristic like race or sex.
To be fair, I don't think that most people take sufficient responsibility for their ideologies and especially for the consequences of what they believe. Even given this background, though, I fear that the situation is worse when it comes to religion. People say they adopt certain moral positions because it's what their god wants and thus disclaim any responsibility for either the moral position or any of its consequences. People vote in certain ways because of what religious leaders tell them about the meaning of scripture and/or the will of their god and thus try to avoid personal responsibility for what the government does in their name.
All this aside, Mark Mercer is making a good point: no matter how sincere or devout a religious believer may be, their beliefs are still matters of opinion and like any other opinion, they can be legitimately subjected to academic criticism as well as withering mockery. The one place where I have to part company with Mercer is that I wouldn't compare religious beliefs too closely to questions of taste. Religious claims are ultimately claims about factual issues and this is why their truth or falsehood are important. Religious claims are far more than mere attitudes or one's taste in art.
Mockery of religion can have a serious point, though good mockery needn't and often doesn't. It can be an attempt to rid people of religion, or of the need they feel to have a religion. It can be a rallying call to defend secularity or to oppose the deference authorities often show to religious sensibilities.
More than a few teenagers, I suspect, owe a debt of gratitude to the likes of Sarah Silverman or Sam Harris, for enabling them to acknowledge their doubts about their religious heritage and to reject that heritage.
There is a long history in the West of using satire, humor, and mockery to criticize both religion and politics, but sometimes I fear that people have forgotten about it or, worse yet, have always been completely ignorant of it. Then again, I never see complaints about the use of mockery against politicians and political parties the way i see it about the use of mockery against religion and religious institutions. This desire to protect religion has always existed, but I think it's become stronger and more fierce in recent years. In the past mocking religion might get you turned away from "polite society," but today it can get you killed.
Perhaps this time began on Feb. 14, 1989, the day a price was put on Salman Rushdie's head. In fact, we should set the date a little later, when the weak response by western governments to this call for murder gave the violent impetus and unnerved the fun loving.
Things have not let up, as the recent attack on a Jyllands-Posten cartoonist shows us. The violent got their way when governments, newspapers, and even universities, including my own, sided with those who demanded solace for their hurt feelings, or else. (Sadly, my university caved without even requiring the "or else.") Nowadays, political leaders in Ireland and other European countries are busy rehabilitating laws against blasphemy. We're kidding ourselves if we expect better from our own leaders.
Probably the best way to decrease the danger would be to meet it head on. That would be to take up mocking religion and the religious in earnest.
One thing that Mark Mercer doesn't point out here but which is significant is the tremendous difference in Western reactions between the Rushdie incident and recent incidents. Publishers, writers, and intellectuals who one would normally expect to defend Western intellectual values were staunch defenders of Salman Rushdie and his right to publish his book. The Jyllands-Posten cartoonists and editors, in contrast, have received far less support.
Is this due to a change in attitudes, or is it because the cartoons are direct satire rather than an "intellectual" engagement with religion? Both possibilities are disturbing. Of all the good reasons for mocking, satirizing, and making fun of religion, it seems to be that the most important reason right now is one we shouldn't even have to worry about: preserving the right and ability to do so. We cannot allow religion, religious institutions, religious traditions, or religious leaders to achieve any sort of privileged position from which they can continue to promote their religious opinions while being free of the rebuttals, criticisms, and even attacks which get directed at any other opinion in any other subject area.