What's So Funny About Atheism?
Two prominent pro-atheist nonprofits, the Center for Inquiry and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, recently announced a writing contest called No God But Funny. Contestants are asked to “contribute to the downfall of civilization by writing a sitcom and/or producing a webisode that features a likeable atheist”. The winners will receive $15,000 for the best sitcom script and $25,000 for the best webisode. Judging from the polished look and feel of the website, the contest seems legit. The sponsors are charging a $40 “entry fee”, though, so it may turn out to be simply a money-making scheme meant to fleece upstart libertarians.
As the website informs interested scribblers: “The goal of this contest is to promote a positive view of atheism, so each entry must include at least one young, likeable, attractive atheist who gets some of the best and funniest lines in every episode/webisode”. The purported goal itself is hilarious insomuch as it suggests that the contest creators lack a firm grasp of how comedy actually works.
I’d like to suggest a few tips for the would-be contestants out there who are considering taking the plunge. For this purpose, let’s dust off our Northrop Frye and consider how the plot of an atheist-sympathizing sitcom might unfold. Frye reminds us that at the beginning of all comedies, “obstructing characters are in charge of society, and the audience recognizes that they are usurpers”. The hero of the comedy—in this case, our “young, likeable, attractive atheist”—must overcome the obstacles imposed by these usurpers in order for the hero and his love interest to come together in a moment where all misunderstandings fall away and they “discover” each other.
So far so good. The contest sponsors have also offered some ideas to get contestants’ mental gears whirring:
Your work can touch on topics like what to say when someone sneezes, atheist writers who hate the idea of submitting something called a “bible” for the TV show, how to respond when someone wishes you a “blessed” day, how to handle “the holidays” – the malls, the inescapable holiday music, fake trees, the workplace, gifts, parties, family traditions, greeting cards, the “war,” new traditions like “festivus” with its airing of grievances and feats of strength, etc., etc. Also, what happens when you get sworn in for jury duty or in court as a witness, “prayers” in legal complaints, AA or other 12 step programs referring to a “higher power,” events like weddings, funerals, baptisms, etc., filling out applications that ask about religion, etc., etc.
The problem with these “topics” is that they set up the hero as a victim, someone perpetually put upon by what atheists view as superstitious absurdities. What these examples fail to recognize is that, more often than not, in comedy, especially comedy that tends toward the satiric, the “obstructing characters” are much more interesting than the hero. The ancient Greeks called these blocking characters alazons, or imposters. Alazons are characterized by their self-ignorance or hypocrisy. In contrast, the Greeks called the comic hero, the eiron, or self-deprecator. Frye tells us that “the contest of the eiron and alazon forms the basis of the comic action”.
Take, for example, the HBO comedy Silicon Valley. I find Gavin Belson, a classic alazon, much more interesting than the hero of the story, Richard Hendricks. Frye would go even further and categorize Belson as a particular type of alazon, which the Greeks called the senex iratus, or heavy father, with his “rages and threats, his obsessions and his gullibility”. Alazons in comedy are pedants, blowhards, curmudgeons, hypocrites, fops, and coxcombs, and we the audience, take delight in all their absurdities.
Frye reminds us what drives alazons is ritual bondage. An alazon is “controlled by habit” or “arbitrary law” and is “usually someone with a good deal of social prestige and power” who attempts to “force much of the comedy’s society into line with his obsession.” A comic plot moves “from a society controlled by habit, ritual bondage, arbitrary law and the older characters to a society controlled by youth and pragmatic freedom.” This, he says, is fundamentally “a movement from illusion to reality”. “Illusion,” Frye continues, “is whatever is fixed or definable, and reality is best understood as its negation: whatever reality is, it’s not that.”
Clearly, the No God But Funny contest organizers want contestants to posit religious believers as the alazons of the winning sitcom episode. But as the ancient Greeks well knew and Frye helpfully reminds us, the hero of our hypothetical comedy must be an eiron, a self-deprecator. To truly self-deprecate, our hero must be capable of also deprecating what he stands for. In the debate raging between believers and atheists, we’ve witnessed, time and again, a certain rigidity, a certain sanctimony from both camps. The arguments and counterarguments have all been laid out ad nauseam for public delectation. There’s an exhaustion to the smug insularity of both worldviews. In effect, both camps seem content to act the alazon and not the eiron.
What comedy seeks, Frye tells us, is a new society based on the promise of a social order not already paternalistically laid out for us. Unfortunately, both New Atheists and the object of their vitriol represent two counterpoised poles of ritual bondage. Whatever new society we lovers of comedy seek, it can’t be the epistemological rigidities of God or No God. We want neither/nor, not either/or.
Since the New Atheists have done such a stand-up job of elucidating all the illusions of religious belief, for the benefit of contest entrants, let’s spend the rest of this essay pointing out some of the logical absurdities of atheism. These absurdities promise a rich vein of comic material for an eiron that’s written to be authentically self-deprecating.
One of the original prophets of New Atheism, Daniel Dennett, recently used the bully pulpit of the Wall Street Journal to pronounce religion’s imminent demise. An atheism-themed comedy could explore all the ways that atheism, as it’s argued and practiced, resembles religion. As the old religions shrivel away, atheism erects something in its place that preempts, yet winds up replicating the same absurdities.
Another New Atheist, Jeffrey Tayler, recently harangued in Salon about politicians of all stripes pandering to Christians with evocations of the Almighty. As a self-proclaimed rationalist, he’s enraged by the craven hypocrisy of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Hillary Clinton. Like the prophet Nathan, he chafes at the impotence of the Enlightened to foist their righteous protestations upon the sinful carnival that is the presidential election campaign. Here, again, we see atheists pontificating in a fashion a lot like evangelical preachers.
Regular Slate and Salon contributor Amanda Marcotte followed up Tayler’s diatribe with an epistle accusing believers of being angrier than atheists. She issues a punch list of theses rebutting what she claims are the most common accusations levied at atheists by religionists. The one that stands out is Marcotte’s insistence that atheists don’t have faith. “I always flinch in embarrassment”, she writes, “for the believer who trots out, ‘Atheism is just another kind of faith,’ because it’s a tacit admission that taking claims on faith is a silly thing to do.”