Humor vs. Religion

An Unholy War, Part One

by Iain Ellis

1 September 2011

Lindsay Lohan as 'April' in Machete (2010) 

The Bark and Bite of Religious Extremism

In Taking Laughter Seriously, Morreall characterizes traditional Christian views of humor by citing St. John Chrysostom, the 4th Archbishop of Constantinople, who saw laughter as base and scornful laughter as inevitably leading to insults, aggression, and—potentially—murder.  “Laughter often gives birth to foul discourse”, he proclaimed, “and foul discourse to actions still more foul” (Qtd. in Morreall 86).  Hence, such thinly-veiled aggression was a sin to be avoided. 

The Puritans of the 17th century were equally distrustful of humor and fearful of its adverse effects. They regarded one’s proper demeanor to be gravity and silence, not the kind of out-of-control raucous conduct that laughter brings on. Concerned that performances involving humor would trigger laughter and perhaps even lasciviousness, Puritan leaders, in an effort to protect the more susceptible of their flock, shut down many of the theaters that showed or included comedy. 

Such attitudes towards humor were not reserved for Puritan America, either. At the same time, in “Catholic” France, the incisive satirical plays staged by the likes of Molière also created shockwaves throughout that society, the riotous laughter induced in theatres regarded by many as ill-mannered and mob-like, and by some as evil. A restrained wit that tickled the mind was fine, but comedy that went for the funny bone was regarded as buffoonery, while the act of laughter itself brought out the kinds of distortions to the face that bore all the signs—according to some—of the devil.

A scholar of both humor and Christianity, Professor Morreall curiously regards the two as largely incompatible. He argues, “To take up the Christian stance wholeheartedly… is to live single-mindedly… ‘obsessively’—with the purpose of fulfilling the will of God” (125). Because humor refuses to submit to dogma, looking at life in different ways from different angles, Morreall deduces, “If Jesus is to be our model, then there seems no place for humor in our lives”, for the incongruities that reside at the core of humor, to Christians, would be “violations of [God’s] divine plan for the world” (126). Morreall’s reasoning concurs with the kinds of sentiments expressed by the “Four Horsemen” when he concludes, “With a sense of humor, we are not likely to become obsessed with anything or fanatic about a cause” (128).  Like religion. 

The implications of Morreall’s startling assertions are not only that humor and religion offer different approaches to life that are inevitably in conflict, but that religion, with its unyielding demands on all of one’s thoughts and actions, is essentially totalitarian in nature. Or, as Hitchens calls it, “a celestial dictatorship”.

Ironically, one of the most common arguments made against atheists by advocates of religion is that the horrors of the 20th century have come largely from the actions of God-less totalitarian regimes that had little tolerance for humor, nor for the kinds of freedoms humor represents. They cite repressive genocidal systems like Hitler’s Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Communist Soviet Union. In the former, some dissenting citizens took to naming their animals “Adolf” as an insult-joke against their führer; in response, the Third Reich instituted “joke courts” whereby offenders were punished accordingly. Similarly, Stalin-era Soviet Union required that all art serve the state, and that any satire must only be targeted against counter-revolutionaries. 

In response to such historical substantiations, the “Four Horsemen” (and Morreall, it seems) counter-argue that such examples actually serve to validate their own analyses, for while neither Hitler nor Stalin followed the dictates of a conventional religion, their regimes were essentially equivalents to theocracies such as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran or the Taliban-run Afghanistan. In all instances freedoms were curtailed, and obedience, fear, and hero-worship—each anathema to humor—were the hallmarks of the systems. 

Even within the US, where democracy and political openness have fostered a rich tradition of rebellious humor, stains still linger from those periods when “God-is-on-our-side” attitudes swept the nation into a mass hysteria of obedience and fear—with dissenting humorists often made the scapegoats. During the McCarthy era, satirical songwriter and ex-Communist Party member, Pete Seeger, was convicted for contempt of Congress (and later blacklisted) after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

More recently, immediately post-9/11, comedian Bill Maher had his show Politically Incorrect cancelled after he stated on-air that while he did not support their actions, the suicide bombers were not “cowardly”. The dea(r)th of humor during both of these periods should be sobering, perhaps reminding us that a reliable measure of freedom and democracy can be gauged by how tolerant the society is of its nonconformist humorists.

Satirical comedy and organized religion may never make ideal bedfellows, and perhaps they are wholly incompatible in essence, but there are still multiple examples of comedians of faith, as well as faiths that court comedy. Just look at the Laughing Buddha!  Furthermore, what would the history of American comedy look like without its Jewish contingent? 

Such discussions as these are subject to inevitable generalizations, and for every declaration there are, of course, exceptions to concede. Nevertheless, the bark and bite of religious extremism—at home and abroad—remain both real and alarming. No amount of P.C. rationalization, religious apologetics, or hiding one’s head in the sand will change that.  Only voices speaking on behalf of everyone’s freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom from (as well as of) religion can. The loudest and clearest of these voices are currently emanating, not from our traditional leaders, but from our more courageous comedians.

Stay tuned for Part Two, “Dispatches from the Front Lines”, in which George Carlin, Bill Maher, and Ricky Gervais go on the offensive, while South Park and some Danish cartoons incur a whole lot of wrath.

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