Atheist TV characters

What’s So Funny About Atheism?

Since New Atheists have done a stand-up job of elucidating the illusions of religious belief, why not point out some of the logical absurdities of 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.”

Science Does Not Exist

The distinction between faith and reason is at the heart of many arguments made by atheists to justify their worldview. Marcotte recycles the stock atheist claim, which is that believers have faith—for the most part, in sky fairies and dank superstitions—while atheists enjoy the light of reason. Some atheists have gone so far as to suggest that they rechristen themselves, “brights”, presumably, because non-atheists are so stupid.

If brightness prevailed, we’d all be blind.

This simplistic opposition between faith and reason is all too familiar. Like comedy, it too dates back to the ancient Greeks, but finds its most militant expression in the Enlightenment philosophy of the 18th century. What many atheists—including Dennett, Tayler, and Marcotte—fail to grasp, though, with their keen reasoning skills is that, for believers, faith and reason amicably coexist. For the believer, the opposite of faith is not reason, but despair. It stands to reason, then, that if atheists aren’t in a perpetual state of despair, they must have some sort of faith. The question then becomes: faith in what?

To claim to be an atheist, in and of itself, doesn’t communicate much. Literally, it’s to be against theism. When pressured to offer a more positive formulation of their worldview, atheists say they don’t have a faith, but they certainly have belief in certain ideals, for instance, in rationality, free speech, equal rights, or democracy. The constellation of values to which atheists generally subscribe is best called secular humanism.

Atheists are essentially humanists. In its most basic form, humanism proclaims that human beings are special because of their capacity to reason, which, in turn, makes possible both moral action and material progress. In a core gospel of the atheist creed, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins states that his intention with the book is to “raise consciousness”, (an expression he repeats throughout the book no less than ten times). By using this image—of consciousness as an object that can be coaxed to rise—he’s drawing on an image schema central to Enlightenment humanism. This regime of darkness and light, above and below, paradoxically, gains much of its cultural resonance from Christian theology.

For Christians, humans are special because they have an eternal soul. For humanists, humans are special because they have the capacity to reason, which, in turn, leads to the highest consciousness of all, sentience. Through humanism, a hierarchy of greater and lesser beings based on the degree of their sentience, their elevated mental “light”, is preempted from Christianity yet preserved. One of the more obviously absurd entailments of this kind of reasoning is social Darwinism.

Nowadays, among atheists, Darwinism isn’t so much social—no self-respecting atheist would insist that one race is superior to another—but they do tend to equate evolution with progress. In a misreading of evolutionary theory, they assume that all organisms in the universe evolve toward greater complexity. Since homo sapiens are the most complex organisms on the planet, by implication, they’re superior. This is a dubious teleology. Complexity doesn’t necessarily equal superiority. As a lay person, the way I understand evolution is that organisms evolve to adapt to their environments, not to strive for some teleological culmination in consciousness raised to its utmost. If brightness prevailed, we’d all be blind.

I’m not suggesting that humanism has not brought many wonderful benefits. I’m just as big a fan of refrigeration, penicillin, and broadband as the next person. But when atheists complain of victimization at the intolerant hands of religionists, it’s hard to take them too seriously, let alone chuckle along with them. The reach and power of humanism as an ideology is just too obvious a refutation.

So to fashion a positive formulation, atheism leans heavily on its commitment to rationality. There are two prevalent meanings of rationality that atheists tend to mix indiscriminately. Or, at the very least, they pivot, as it suits their rhetorical purposes, from one sense of the word to the other. I’ll call these two versions, weak and strong rationality. The weak version of rationality means reasonable, that is, capable of having a calm conversation with another civilized person.

Conversely, irrationality is an accusation levied during arguments when one person seeks to get the upper hand. Imagine Ozzie and Harriet squabbling over a missed mortgage payment. Exasperated, Ozzie blurts out, “Don’t get hysterical, Harriet. Let’s be rational about this.” To claim to be rational—or to accuse an opponent of being irrational—is a way of shutting down debate, not inviting it. A classic alazon maneuver.

And more often than not, as feminists have been reminding us for over a century, it bears with it sexist undertones. Think: men are rational, women emotional. In many respects, to declare oneself a rationalist, while accusing one’s opponent of being irrational or faith-based is a shibboleth. It signals a tribal affiliation and rallies the troops in defense of the ideological cause. To accuse someone of being irrational, then, is akin to calling them an infidel.

The strong version of rationality hews more closely to the etymology of the word, from the Latin, ratio, to think. The highest form of rationality for most rationalists is mathematics. And the ideal physical manifestation of rationality is the computer, the rationation-machine par excellence. One irony of those who idealize rationality in its strong sense is that the overwhelming consensus among scientists these days is that people aren’t very rational at all. Reasoning is merely one ingredient in a complex medley of embodied cognitive processes. We’re occasionally-rational animals at best, not computers. But don’t tell Sheldon Cooper that.

With this metaphysical confidence—I wouldn’t want to call it faith—in rationality comes an implicit hierarchy of logical rigor. First comes mathematics, then theoretical physics as the shining achievement of empirical applications of mathematical rigor, then the other “hard” sciences, like applied physics, chemistry, and perhaps, biology. Straggling far behind are the dubious ambiguities of the social sciences and the humanities.

Atheists, as devotees of rationalism, point to the reason and empiricism of science as the foundation of their catechism. A compelling positive formulation of atheism, therefore, more than simply the denial of theism, is the affirmation of science and the promise it holds to lay bare all the mysteries of the universe. Michael Shermer defines the “scientific worldview” as the one “that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science.” If atheism inherits its moral compass from humanism, it gets its sanctimony from a scientific worldview, or to be more precise, from scientism.

Here’s the rub. Science doesn’t exist. Which is to say, science as a unity doesn’t exist. Scientific activity is a plurality that the word science neatly obscures as a unity. There is no scientific method, per se, only a hodgepodge of scientific methods. Scientists interact with the world in a proscribed, yet flexible way to arrive at relatively stable conclusions about cause and effect. Yet even with those razor-sharp minds, scientists are people too. Like the rest of us, they struggle to bring to bear on their work clumsy bodies and messy relationships.

Here’s another one of science’s dirty little secrets: its purpose is to predict the effects of causes, but it works best when its methods of inquiry are used on relatively simple, isolated systems. That’s, in part, why theoretical physics enjoys such a privileged position in the scientistic pantheon. Take Newtonian mechanics—so elegant, so pure, so mind-bogglingly predictive. We’ve used its insights to put a man on the moon. However, as any physicist will tell you, even Newtonian mechanics becomes a nonlinear farrago with no predictive power when it tries to accommodate more than two or three massive bodies interacting via the single force of gravity.

The sad truth of scientism is that the more complex a system under scrutiny, or the less isolated that system, the less predictive scientific methods become. In these frequently occurring scenarios, scientists must abandon the steely comforts of causation. They’re reduced to quibbling over the strength or weakness of correlations between ever more ornate abstractions and their real-world consequences.

As soon as we tip-toe from the comfortable certainty of causation into the murky waters of weak correlation, we enter a world of conjecture, or even, dare I say, superstition. Which is to say, one person’s reasoned argument about possible correlation is another’s silly superstition. Given the vast complexity of the world, and the frequent intractability of its causal mechanics, we can start to have a little more empathy for superstition and those who indulge in it. Denouncing the superstitious is a bit like berating Nana for being set in her ways. In our new atheist sitcom, let’s give superstition its due as an archaic, yet venerable form of theorizing about causation under trying circumstances.

It’s more illuminating to think of science as a tool—or better yet, a toolbox—rather than a worldview. To offer an analogy: carpenters don’t go around evangelizing the wonders of a “toolbox” worldview. They use the tools in their toolbox to frame houses, as in, the places where we live. As soon as we think of science not as a toolbox, but as a unified worldview, we’ve bumbled through the portico into the cathedral of religion.

Adherents of scientism also love to point out that science is truly democratic because anyone can verify another’s hypothesis by replicating the experiment to produce equivalent results. This may be the case for relatively basic truth claims, for example, that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Any enterprising school kid can, following in the footsteps of Anaximander, craft a gnomon to measure the angles of the shadows cast by the sun at a couple geographic coordinates, then, with some trigonometry, verify the counterintuitive assertion of these ludicrous “rounders”. But who among us has actually bothered to verify that the magnetic moment of the electron is, in fact, (−928.476377±0.000023)×10−26 J·T−1?

And what about this fancy new Higgs boson everyone’s talking about? It’s one thing to measure shadows in our backyard, it’s another thing altogether to hop down to the local hardware store to splash out for the gear needed to build our very own Large Hadron Collider.

We leave it to the experts to sort through the haystack of reality to find the needles of causation lurking within it. Which isn’t very democratic, is it? The vast majority of what we know to be true about the world is received knowledge, bequeathed to us by experts and taken on faith. In this era of hyper-specialization, we’re all enthusiastic regurgitators of that received knowledge, often served up to us, not by the experts themselves, but by their sponsors. These are folks who are motivated by agendas decidedly more worldly than merely to “raise consciousness”. And so we grow weary of this all-you-can-eat buffet where the only dish is a briny gruel of secondhand scientific facts. We begin to grow suspicious of the know-it-all experts and their mouthpieces, as they tout lunar landings, the necessity of vaccinations, or Global Warming.

Yet another myth of scientism: science, especially the hard sciences, traffic in mathematical argument, which transcends the storytelling that characterizes non-rigorous academic disciplines like analytic philosophy, economics, and—I shudder at the thought—literary criticism. But are the mathematical arguments that, for instance, particle physicists use to make truth claims about the universe, really free of storytelling?

As it turns out, not quite. My own research details how the technical articles that physicists write to each other to stake out truth claims employ what I call imaginaries, stories that the physicists tell to connect mathematical abstractions to the real world. For theoretical physicists telling stories to each other in their technical journals or to the public through popularizations, the genre of choice is not comedy, but heroic romance.

As a form of storytelling, romance, even the form favored by physicists, adheres to a pretty rigid plot. An idealistic hero patronized by a higher authority undertakes a quest to places remote from ordinary life in order to complete a task and return with an object desired by that authority. For physicists, that higher authority is scientific truth as arbitrated by the scientific community. In their technical articles, particle physicists, armed with mathematical argument, venture out into an alien world—the microcosm—to discover and tame the natural entities they encounter there, whether they be Higgs bosons or superstrings.

With this heroic groundwork laid in the technical literature, it’s a short stretch to the purple prose of popular physics: “It is truly inspiring that beings confined to one planet orbiting a run-of-the-mill star in the far edges of a fairly ordinary galaxy have been able, through thought and experiment, to ascertain and comprehend some of the most mysterious characteristics of the physical universe.”

Without this imaginative scaffolding, physicists simply couldn’t do physics. After all, they’re just animals that think. Not computers. Not God. Which is not to say cavalierly that it’s all relative. It’s to say that scientific theories can never be absolutely true, only stable. Granted, some scientific theories are more stable than others. The precise value of Newton’s gravitational constant, as a truth claim, is, as far as we know, much more stable than, say, Alan Guth’s theory about cosmic inflation. But wait a hundred years and that may change. And, importantly, science can never be pure. It’s always accompanied by its own peculiar set of myths and superstitions.

Like Tayler, the high priests of atheism—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and until recently, their martyred saint, Christopher Hitchens—make a habit of asserting that religion is the cause of more evil in the world than anything else. This is an intriguing hypothesis, coming from such vociferous champions of empiricism. Perhaps one episode of our new sitcom could be about our heroes’ epic struggles to get funding from the National Science Foundation for their little religion experiment.

The next time atheists get on their high horse to bash the irrational faith of religious believers, they should take pause to consider the philosophical blind spots at the heart of their own creed. They can start with their contempt for the word “God”. In the religion versus reason debate that rages around us, atheists often blurt out, like a senex iratus, trivialized formulations of God in a transparently straw man rhetorical attack. But as Terry Eagleton points out, no self-respecting believer would describe God as a bearded white geezer lounging on a cottony cumulonimbus.

Just as science is better understood as a toolbox, so too is it useful to consider the word God, rather than a battleground of oversimplified definitions, as serving a function, much as a carpenter’s tools are used to build a house. As a living word used by real people every day, God binds a social order to a natural order, just as the God particle binds a social order—the scientific community—to a natural order, the microscopic mechanics of the universe.

Here’s a mental exercise to limber up the critical faculties of atheists who aspire to comedy. Every time you hear or read the word God, replace the word in your head with one of the following: nature, community, the leader of a community, the father (or, much less frequently, the mother) of a family, or some combination of the above. If we all do this mental transposition enough times, we’ll begin to better appreciate the nuances latent in the word God. We’ll begin to have a little more compassion for the beleaguered refugees of scientism and its historically-determined march toward the pure light of oblivion.

And, who knows, eventually we might even be able to make atheism funny.