“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.
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.