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Austin Cline

Making Fun of Religion

By February 15, 2010

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One thing which seems to unite believers of all stripes, from fundamentalist to liberal, is the shock and horror they experience at seeing religion mocked, satirized, or in any way made fun of. This doesn't bother all religious believers, of course, but it's been my experience that it's far more likely to bother someone, even liberal and moderate believers, than more academic or intellectual criticism. The problem is, exempting religion from mocking and satire is no more valid than exempting it from criticism generally. It doesn't matter whether the criticism is fair unfair, if the satire is good or just puerile.

Mark Mercer offers a strong explanation not only for why religion should not be exempt from mockery and satire, but in fact why it's important that religion be a target sometimes:

There's much to be said against making fun of religion and religious believers, and certainly some instances of mockery are puerile, intemperate, or noxious. But what can't be said against it is that it is cruel. It's not, at least not in the way making fun of the lame or the dim is cruel. Neither the lame nor the dim chose their condition, and they cannot choose to escape it. That's not true of the religious.

Making fun of religion is like making fun of bad taste. It's making fun of something that's up to individuals themselves, something for which individuals are willing to take responsibility. It's open to the religious believer, just as it is to the connoisseur of felt paintings, to disabuse her critics of their false evaluation of her attitudes.

Actually, I'm not sure to what degree the average religious believer is willing to "take responsibility" for the religious doctrines they believe, the religious institutions they are members of and support financially, or the religious leaders they follow and thereby give power and authority to. I can't begin to count how often I've seen religious believers disparage civil rights protections for gays on the argument that homosexuality is "chosen" without recognizing that religion is far more like a "chosen" set of behaviors than it is like an inherent characteristic like race or sex.

To be fair, I don't think that most people take sufficient responsibility for their ideologies and especially for the consequences of what they believe. Even given this background, though, I fear that the situation is worse when it comes to religion. People say they adopt certain moral positions because it's what their god wants and thus disclaim any responsibility for either the moral position or any of its consequences. People vote in certain ways because of what religious leaders tell them about the meaning of scripture and/or the will of their god and thus try to avoid personal responsibility for what the government does in their name.

All this aside, Mark Mercer is making a good point: no matter how sincere or devout a religious believer may be, their beliefs are still matters of opinion and like any other opinion, they can be legitimately subjected to academic criticism as well as withering mockery. The one place where I have to part company with Mercer is that I wouldn't compare religious beliefs too closely to questions of taste. Religious claims are ultimately claims about factual issues and this is why their truth or falsehood are important. Religious claims are far more than mere attitudes or one's taste in art.

Mockery of religion can have a serious point, though good mockery needn't and often doesn't. It can be an attempt to rid people of religion, or of the need they feel to have a religion. It can be a rallying call to defend secularity or to oppose the deference authorities often show to religious sensibilities.

More than a few teenagers, I suspect, owe a debt of gratitude to the likes of Sarah Silverman or Sam Harris, for enabling them to acknowledge their doubts about their religious heritage and to reject that heritage.

There is a long history in the West of using satire, humor, and mockery to criticize both religion and politics, but sometimes I fear that people have forgotten about it or, worse yet, have always been completely ignorant of it. Then again, I never see complaints about the use of mockery against politicians and political parties the way i see it about the use of mockery against religion and religious institutions. This desire to protect religion has always existed, but I think it's become stronger and more fierce in recent years. In the past mocking religion might get you turned away from "polite society," but today it can get you killed.

Perhaps this time began on Feb. 14, 1989, the day a price was put on Salman Rushdie's head. In fact, we should set the date a little later, when the weak response by western governments to this call for murder gave the violent impetus and unnerved the fun loving.

Things have not let up, as the recent attack on a Jyllands-Posten cartoonist shows us. The violent got their way when governments, newspapers, and even universities, including my own, sided with those who demanded solace for their hurt feelings, or else. (Sadly, my university caved without even requiring the "or else.") Nowadays, political leaders in Ireland and other European countries are busy rehabilitating laws against blasphemy. We're kidding ourselves if we expect better from our own leaders.

Probably the best way to decrease the danger would be to meet it head on. That would be to take up mocking religion and the religious in earnest.

One thing that Mark Mercer doesn't point out here but which is significant is the tremendous difference in Western reactions between the Rushdie incident and recent incidents. Publishers, writers, and intellectuals who one would normally expect to defend Western intellectual values were staunch defenders of Salman Rushdie and his right to publish his book. The Jyllands-Posten cartoonists and editors, in contrast, have received far less support.

Is this due to a change in attitudes, or is it because the cartoons are direct satire rather than an "intellectual" engagement with religion? Both possibilities are disturbing. Of all the good reasons for mocking, satirizing, and making fun of religion, it seems to be that the most important reason right now is one we shouldn't even have to worry about: preserving the right and ability to do so. We cannot allow religion, religious institutions, religious traditions, or religious leaders to achieve any sort of privileged position from which they can continue to promote their religious opinions while being free of the rebuttals, criticisms, and even attacks which get directed at any other opinion in any other subject area.

February 15, 2010 at 6:50 pm
(1) Ron says:

I think blasphemy against superstition should be criminalized!! Oh! wait! I guess it already is in some locales.

February 16, 2010 at 2:25 pm
(2) ChuckA says:

In criticizing religions…ANY religions…especially as an atheist, one is going up against a myriad of long entrenched forms of resistance; which, of course, includes the tremendous number of people whose lifetime “gigs” are intimately involved in religion…the Clerics of one form or another. We’re all pretty much aware, I think, just how vicious the reaction would be regarding any attempt at open criticism of religion in various Muslim countries, like Iran.
Sticking with the more secular democracies like the UK, or the US, even then, the only voices which seem to be allowed, or get heard at all, are those of the comedians. After all, we have the “powers that be”, both professional media ‘roosting’, and amongst the overwhelming majority of Politicians, who are constantly referencing “thoughts and prayers”, and all the “God bless” stuff coming out of their mouths at every occasion of News stories and speech endings, etc.
Actual, substantial, criticism of religions, ala the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and even Harris…aside from the occasional book selling attention…is hardly EVER allowed; even on programs like “Larry King Live”. There’s no dearth, however, of rather undivided attention given to various wacko religious preachers; from the likes of Billy Graham and family, to Rick Warren and his delusional ilk.

On a personal note, I have one family member whom I occasionally engage in conversation about religion in general; and, even then, have to be cautious not to get too harsh about the flaws of religious belief, so obvious to myself. Humor, I find, helps to somewhat soften the “blows” aimed at serious criticism.
I guess my main point here is that until we atheists organize some form of political party; call it the “Non Believer Party”, “Rational Secularists”, or whatever, things will most likely not substantially change the status quo. And, of course, organizing atheists is like “herding cats”…almost impossible…?

Regarding comedians, and their contribution to making fun AND serious, even substantial criticism of religions; the number of those is very limited. I immediately think of the late George Carlin as the prime example. We’ve, of course, lost others; like Bill Hicks, even Richard Jeni, f’rnstance. Louis Black, Bill Maher, and mentioned in the above Post, Sarah Silverman are some of the remaining examples of comedians who make it a definite point of criticizing religions. Of course, on the Internet, perhaps less comedic in his delivery, would be Pat Condell; more infamous than famous, I’d say…and much less known for his comedy than biting, caustic…but highly accurate…criticism.

Speaking of Carlin’s humorous approach; nobody, I think, did it better than he; as this often posted (by me?) YouTube points out [Warning: crude language?]:
[His point about the lame, superstitious notion of "prayer" and the oft supposed "God's Infinite Plan" is good, IMO, to remember when dealing with various believers.]

I guess_bottom-line_we atheists all need to exercise a bit of “guts”, whenever possible.
The word “Tact” also comes to mind, of course.

February 16, 2010 at 2:37 pm
(3) Ron says:

Thank God I’m an atheist!!!! :)

February 18, 2010 at 8:00 am
(4) MikeC says:

ChuckA – you can add to that list of comedians:

Brian Posehn, Patton Oswalt, Penn & Teller, Mark Twain, and my favorite nerd/astrophysicist who could kick Jesus and Mohammad’s ass with one hand tied behind his back…
Neil deGrasse Tyson.


February 18, 2010 at 8:11 am
(5) MikeC says:

Oops I forgot his best quote, at the end, (in case some don’t click) about ‘intelligent design’:

“What’s this going on between our legs? … We have an entertainment complex in the middle of a sewage system. No engineer would design that at all. Ever.”

August 14, 2010 at 1:54 pm
(6) Unspokensarcasm says:

Marc Maron and Jim Jeffries also have bits about it.

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