“It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”
—G.K. Chesterton. “Spiritualism”. From All Things Considered (1908).
In the realms of public discourse, atheists have traditionally existed as a mostly invisible minority, content to wander the wilderness of their isolation or exile while their more strident theist adversaries luxuriate in the comfortable acceptance of an unchallenged public consensus. But no more! No longer just the shamed and the silent few holed-up in habitual hibernation, atheists, agnostics, and anti-theists are emerging as the latest minority to step out of the closet, and they are manifesting and marching forth from all walks of life.
Spearheading this contemporary surge are the so-called “Four Horsemen”, a gang of four intellectuals committed to nothing less than waging outright war with the organized religions of the world. Unwilling to keep their aberrant opinions to themselves, Christopher Hitchens, with God Is Not Great (2007), Richard Dawkins, with The God Delusion (2006), Sam Harris, with The End of Faith (2004), and Daniel Dennett, with Breaking the Spell (2006), have shared bold book-size rebuttals to religion with a general populace that, in turn, has rewarded them by making those books best-sellers and their speeches among the most well-attended on the lecture circuit. But what accounts for the appeal and popularity of these so-called “New Atheists”, and why now?
According to the “Four Horsemen”, a lot of regular citizens have had enough of the recurrent and unwelcome impositions of religion. Islamic fundamentalist terrorism has made people angry and afraid, the demolition of science in schools due to the forced introduction of articles of faith like “intelligent design” has left them frustrated, and the seemingly endless parade of priest pedophilia news stories has left them outraged—to name but a few recent grievances.
Yet, the increase in alienation from religion cannot just be accounted for by contemporary developments such as these, for the rise of secularism has been afoot across much of the Western world (and beyond) for some time now. While it is estimated, per this article on atheism on Wikipedia.org that only 2.3 percent of the world’s population are atheists, in “Catholic” France the percentage may be as high as 32 percent and in “C. of E.” Britain 17 percent—and these are not including other types of non-believers. As Western Europe increasingly distances itself from its past religious influences, in the US—while religion still remains strong—disaffection and disaffiliation with its institutions are also on the rise and these are becoming increasingly vocalized.
Once upon a time on the defensive or opting out of debates all together, the “new atheists” refuse to cower to the pressures and prejudices they have customarily been subjected to. Today, one is as likely to witness Hitchens and Dawkins sparring with Fox News commentators as one is to see the usual televangelist and Catholic spokespeople periodically trotted out.
Moreover, quiet tolerance is also a demeanor on the wane among atheists; indeed, both Hitchens and Dawkins are becoming renowned for the assertive reasoning and the rapier-like wit they employ when confronting their faith-based combatants. This new militancy in tone and argumentation reminds us of developments in prior minority struggles, such as those of African-Americans, women, and homosexuals, who similarly took time to find their more strident and satirical voices.
As with those movements, it wasn’t until dissenting voices emerged from beyond the initial pioneers and intelligentsia—from mainstream supporters—that their arguments established the social foothold necessary to create a zeitgeist of cultural change. Such is the case within the “new atheist” movement, where its principles, postures, and proclamations have been disseminated most widely and successfully in recent years by contemporary populist comedians.
In the vanguard of “new atheism” are not only the aforementioned “Four Horsemen”, but also what we might call the “Unholy Trinity” of populist humor: George Carlin, Bill Maher, and Ricky Gervais. While the scientists, academics, and writers of the “Four Horsemen” have sometimes struggled to communicate or register with everyday hardened believers, the “Unholy Trinity” have brought new voices to religious debunking, ones that expose the absurdities of the non-rational by adding the spice of satire to plain common sense rhetoric.
However, despite employing different voices and approaches, these two fronts in the war on religion are united on certain basic tenets: that institutions of religion garner way too much respect and too little critical scrutiny; that religion compromises individual freedoms and human rights; and that all societies benefit when reason and evidence take precedence over supernatural beliefs.
America today is one of the most religious nations in the world; yet, it is notable that its founding fathers were skeptical of, if not outright oppositional to, the influence of the church on the fledgling nation. Debates linger as to whether—or to how many—of the founding fathers were atheists or agnostics, but the influence of 17th and 18th century Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Paine is certainly apparent in their collective belief that “a wall of separation” between church and state is necessary in order to maintain a viable democracy. For Jefferson et al, the dark ages of church abuses, arbitrary authority, and faith-based customs were anathema to a nation seeking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all its citizens.
John Morreall, Religious Studies professor at the College of William and Mary, is also one of the leading contemporary scholars of humor. His book, Taking Humor Seriously (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), traces the tensions between humor and religion back to early Christianity. Though some scholars have argued otherwise, Morreall notes the absence of any mention of humor in The Bible, and that little has been said of it in Christian traditions since (86).
Intrigued by this assertion, I recently scoured the internet in search of religious humor sites but found little besides a CNN Entertainment article entitled “Is ‘Religious Humor’ an Oxymoron?” and a religious humor journal called The Door, where its editor, Robert Darden, claimed his site as the only one of its kind. Darden suggests in his preamble that more open engagement between religion and humor could serve to positively build bridges between denominations and faiths, as well as to burst the inflated ego bubbles of certain un-named celebrity preachers.