Humor vs. Religion: An Unholy War. Part Two: Dispatches From the Front Lines

See also “Humor vs. Religion: An Unholy War, Part One”

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.

Don’t Laugh, God Forbid

Still, on the film’s release a critical assault was immediately unleashed from various religious quarters, though it was difficult to tell whether the various “representative” spokespeople trotted out had been offended by Maher or by the embarrassing realities he had unveiled and investigated. (Some even admitted—in the midst of their outrage—that they had not yet watched the movie!). Despite the knee-jerk religious backlash, and despite being tagged by certain media critics as an “atheist” film, Religulous clearly struck a receptive chord with a sizeable portion of the religion-weary public, whose viewing made it the seventh highest-grossing documentary in US film history.

While Maher’s satirical take on religion was film-length, Gervais created comparable controversy (and media coverage) with just a few words he injected at the close of the 2011 Golden Globe Awards. Hosting the ceremony for the second year running, Gervais initially ruffled feathers by aiming a few incisive barbs at some choice celebrity attendees, but it was his final comment that resonated just as loudly through the media thereafter. Mocking the standard “And thank you to God” bromide we are so accustomed to hearing from politicians, presenters, and victorious athletes, Gervais affixed the addendum, “…for making me an atheist!”

“Stupid”, “Offensive”, and “in bad taste” were some of the immediate responses from horrified viewers, while the host Hollywood Foreign Press Association forthrightly apologized for (what they called) Gervais’s “totally unacceptable” conduct. Piers Morgan kept the hullabaloo buzzing when he interviewed the offending comic on his chat show a few days later. Like many others, the Catholic Morgan was clearly not amused, and aggressively admonished Gervais for resorting to humor that was bound to upset American audiences.

Perhaps the most internationally documented contemporary incident in which humor and religion have clashed in combat occurred in 2005, when a Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons satirizing fundamentalist Islam. The Jyllands-Posten newspaper, like many in Denmark, had a long tradition of lampooning all institutional religions, thus the editors, in the wake of 9/11, 7/7, and other atrocities recently committed by Muslim terrorists, felt journalistically justified when commissioning various cartoonists to visually comment about the various proclamations and threats these extremists were acting upon in the name of their prophet Muhammad. Among the 12 cartoons printed was one portraying Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, and another in which Muhammad greets suicide bombers entering heaven with the line, “Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins” (a reference to “Shahid”, which decrees that the reward for Islamic martyrs will be 72 virgins in heaven).

Reactions were local initially, with complaints made by a few Danish Muslim groups, but before long the cartoons were re-printed in over 50 other countries. Simultaneously, protests spread, with Danish embassies around the world coming under siege, resulting in flag-burnings, bombings, and the deaths of hundreds as protesters clashed with police. Over the next few months the conflict broadened in scope, with various parties weighing in on the pressing issues the incident had highlighted. Protesters, alongside officials from many governments (both East and West), condemned the cartoons as racist, blasphemous, and Islamophobic, with the more extreme critics calling for a “fatwã” against the cartoonists of the kind that had been issued against novelist Salman Rushdie years earlier. “Massacre those who insult Islam” and “Freedom go to hell” were among the slogans on placards held by Muslim demonstrators at the Danish embassy in London in February 2006. The Danish government, meanwhile, though not supportive of the content in the cartoons, still refused to intervene, citing freedom of the press as their reason, while one Belgian newspaper, Het Volk, suggested that we need more of the same so that Muslims can get accustomed to the principle of freedom of expression.

Finally, many months later, just as tensions started to simmer, South Park entered the fray. Their “Cartoon Wars” episodes, in addition to showing images of Jesus defecating on both President Bush and the American flag, also originally included unflattering representations of Muhammad—only Comedy Central hastily excised the latter prior to broadcast. (Shariah law, some claim, forbids any representations of the Muslim prophet). Double standards aside, Comedy Central—obviously cognizant of the tense climate—were clearly running scared for fear of reprisals. As far as writer-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were concerned, the show had essentially been preemptively held hostage, with the precedent set that freedom of expression may be expunged whenever extremists can foster sufficient fear to elicit self-censorship.

Soon, a new battle-front emerged, with sympathetic comedians joining the front-lines on behalf of freedom of speech. Jon Stewart and Bill Maher came out first in support of Parker and Stone, while The Simpsons’ writers slyly contributed with an episode showing Bart writing on a blackboard, “South Park—We’d stand beside you if we weren’t so scared”. Another group, Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor, even established an “Everybody Draw Mohammed” day in 2010, as the conflict lingered on five years after the original incident.

Ultimately, these showdowns between defenders of humor and those of religion amount to skirmishes over values—secular versus religious ones—and neither side is willing to concede much ground. Some go further, arguing that these clashes symbolize war between the West and East; however, as is only too apparent in recent years, comparable struggles exist within the US itself. Matt Taibbi recently wrote an article for Rolling Stone entitled “Michele Bachmann’s Holy War”, in which he illustrates that homophobia, traditional family values, and “God-speaks-directly-to-me” theism are by no means exclusive to Islamic fundamentalists.

Furthermore, while he recognizes that comedians like Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert are among the few public figures willing to take on the religious zealotry of the likes of Bachmann, Taibbi argues that their targeted satire is essentially ineffectual. Whereas the superiority humor of Molière and Swift once confirmed the power of satire in chastening extremists into shame and change, Taibbi claims that such humor today only adds fuel to the opposition’s fire. “Don’t laugh”, he advises, for “the secret of Bachmann’s success is that every time you laugh at her, she gets stronger”. This is because far from feeling reprimanded or educated, her supporters just feel insulted and patronized—and thus newly re-empowered—by comic put-downs.

Contempt is clearly a mutual feeling for these two factions, and its expression and fallout will have about as much chance of silencing the satirists (for whom such comedy nearly writes itself) as they will in converting the doggedly faithful; in other words, this on-going war between critical humorists and religion appears to be far from its end-times.

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