For some non-believers, god(s) should be relegated to the same category of the paranormal that includes aliens, ghosts, and the Loch Ness monster. Lacking any credible existential evidence, belief in such things is deemed by some as, at best, a product of socialization, or, at worst, self-delusional and dysfunctional. For some comedians, though, the non-rational beliefs and behaviors that religion fosters are, from a “material” perspective, manna from heaven.
Nevertheless, religion, with its mass constituency of often sensitive followers and powerful advocates, has largely operated in a protected zone from comedy and criticism over the years. Perhaps fearful of potentially offending a large proportion of their audience, humorists have traditionally been reluctant to take on religion as a comedic target, despite the fact that it often exhibits traits—indoctrination, blind faith, discrimination, hypocrisy, rituals—that are ordinarily the very stuff of satire.
Recently, however, a movement has been developing within the comic community, one no longer willing to confer upon religion special treatment or exception, and one willing to fight against its perceived absurdities with unabashed candor and wit. At the forefront of contemporary anti-theist comedy are the “Unholy Trinity” of George Carlin, Bill Maher, and Ricky Gervais, though they are accompanied in their cause by such notables of past and present as Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, and Penn Jillette.
Maybe the recent wave of anti-theist humor reflects a new daring and courage amongst our critical comedians; or maybe their outspokenness is an “end-of-tether” response to the many well-publicized “sins” and atrocities that have recently emanated from within—or at the behest of—organized religions. Whatever the reasons, these humorists do not constitute isolated exemplars, for similar anti-religious sentiments are being expressed by like-minded critics beyond the comedy world. The so-called “Four Horsemen” of atheism—Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett—have maintained their own frontline assaults over the last decade, while organizations like Project Reason, the OUT Campaign, and the National Secular Society have offered empowering meeting places for non-believers, many of whom have felt isolated, scorned, and silenced in the past.
Religion has proven to be an inviting target for critical humorists on a number of fronts: Its often outlandish customs and costumes appear, prima facie, to serve little practical purpose; nonetheless, they function to create a dominant and domineering mystique by which institutional control over the “flock” can be maintained and symbolically validated. George Carlin addresses some of these rituals in his final HBO special, It’s Bad For Ya (2008), during a section he entitled “American Bullshit”. In one bit, “Takin’ Off Yer Hat”, he playfully documents the multitude of head garments worn by the leaders of various churches, as well as the regulations of when and how hats should or should not be worn by the parishioners—(each subject to particular circumstances). This is “kid’s stuff”, Carlin concludes, but his larger point is that habits (sic) such as these (or swearing on The Bible in court) surreptitiously operate to re-iterate and re-indoctrinate the hierarchy of institutional authority within society.
Another line of attack from the “Four Horsemen” and the “Unholy Trinity” aims at the incongruity between supernatural belief and science. Evolutionary scientists like Richard Dawkins are particularly perplexed by the prioritizing of faith in some classrooms and, related by the ways in which politically-empowered “Young Earthers” have decimated science education in the process. Gervais is also vocal in defense of science, and confronts those who dodge any discussions of evidence by retreating to the platitude, “Well, science can’t explain everything”. Indeed, it cannot, he concedes, but it can and has explained a lot (and continues to), most of which has gained a consensus across the scientific community.
On the other hand, the “Intelligent Design” proposed by creationists has no credible supporting evidence, serving only to obfuscate rather than debunk evolutionary theory. In defense of medical science, Gervais quips, “It doesn’t hold on to medieval practices because they are a tradition. If it did, you wouldn’t get a shot of penicillin, you’d pop a leach down your trousers and pray” (“Why I Do Not Believe in a God”). History studies, too, often fall victim to the beliefs of the “Young Earthers” when their fundamentalist essentialism flies in the face of all scientific evidence. Lewis Black, another key player amongst the new atheist comedians, notes, “These people are watching The Flintstones as if it was a documentary”.
An even more contentious criticism of religion charges that its “commandments” and concept of a higher power inevitably lead to indoctrinatory mind control and restraints upon freedom of thought, expression, and behavior—what Christopher Hitchens calls a “celestial dictatorship”. For critical comedians, whose business it is to penetrate, expose, and shed such dogmatic restrictions, a religious perspective on life can run contrary to their own.
George Carlin’s later work teases and prods in this terrain, with sketches that range from the silly to the scathing. If God has a divine plan and “[His] will be done”, then why pray in the first place, he asks (George Carlin. Napalm & Silly Putty. New York: Hyperion, 2001. p.252). And evaluating God’s job performance (“war, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption, and the Ice Capades”), Carlin suggests replacing him with someone more capable, someone who can get things done—like Joe Pesci (p.250). The sun, too, would be a much better choice for a “higher” power, he argues: “First of all, I can see the sun” and “It never tells me I’m unworthy”; furthermore, “No one asks for money” (p.251). Fueling these absurdist bits is a satirical bite that seeks to strip religion of its arbitrary powers and aura, exposing it for what it really is: demeaning, manipulative, and exploitative.
Gervais, like Carlin, combines rationalism and satire when suggesting that whenever someone tells you that they believe in God, you should respond, “Which one?” If, according to Gervais, there have been 2,870 gods cited in our 6,000 years of written history, then the particular god we adopt is surely dependent upon the time when and place where we happen to be living (“Why I Do Not Believe in a God”). So, as Carlin proposes, “just pick a superstition you like, sit back, make a wish, and enjoy yourself” (Napalm. p.253).
Ironically, perhaps, each of the “Unholy Trinity” comedians grew up in religious households, Carlin and Maher as Catholics, Gervais in the Church of England. Despite attending Catholic schools as a youth, Carlin claims to have dispensed with any concept of faith on discovering reason—at the age of three. Gervais, likewise, often tells of how the emergence of logic and common sense allowed him to sever the apron strings from his mother’s religion at the age of eight. Maher, on the other hand, has spoken of how his family opted out of any religious observances when he was 13. All three comedians cite the emergence of a questioning nature—a trait often ascribed to comedians—as the factor that provided the armor necessary for resisting or overcoming any early religious socialization efforts.
Decades removed from these early conversions, the “Unholy Trinity” are certainly not reticent in sharing their skepticism and cynicism about religion with today’s mainstream society. While Carlin is no longer with us, Maher and Gervais continue to operate as the comedy world’s principle irritants to the faith community. In 2008, Maher wrote, produced, and featured in the documentary, Religulous, and while its portmanteau title indicates Maher’s core thesis, the film itself is actually quite balanced in representation and non-demonstrative in tone. Certainly, the movie’s more extremist characters do provide some belly laughs (though solely by their own conduct), but, for the most part, the leaders and practitioners of various faiths that Maher crosses paths with in his worldly travels are just allowed to articulate and express their particular points-of-view.