My Old Kentucky Homesite

The Humor Theory of Atheism: Laugh Your Way to Godlessness

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 06/25/2010

Fellow Lexingtonian atheist BrentH is a new friend of mine, and he has already left a number of funny and/or insightful comments on this blog. But some of his best stuff has come in private emails to me. So I’m going to give him credit for most of the ideas that follow. I agree with them, though, so if you think they’re ridiculous, don’t hesitate to attack either one of us. (Like I have to encourage you, right?) Brent can always say “fuck you” and leave the thread if you get too nasty. Or boring. I’m sorta stuck here – this being my old Kentucky (yikes!) Homesite – disproving by counter-example the myth of Southern gentility. So bring it on, you clowns. (At least, I’m guessing that you’re clowns. As you’ll soon see.)

Brent and I have been discussing the kinds of people who become atheists after having been raised in various specific religions. He grew up in a moderately Catholic home. I grew up in a household headed by a religiously indifferent mother and a loud-mouthed atheist father, but my neighborhood was heavily Jewish.

We noticed – through the filters of our own experiences – that in this country, ex-Catholics and former Jews do not usually seem to go through months and months, even years and years, of torturous angst after breaking free from their particular superstitions. We wondered why those groups were different from most Protestants, particularly, say, Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, Charismatics, and all those other Fundamentalist types. Some of those poor folks struggle agonizingly when they come to realize that they no longer believe.

My original thesis was this: For both of those groups, Catholics and Jews, regardless of how devout they are, the family at home is still the primary social unit. (That’s not always a good thing, as anyone with a Jewish mother can tell you.) For many Protestants, however, particularly those whose sects lean strongly in the Fundy direction, the church itself becomes the primary social unit. So, obviously, “leaving the faith” has tremendous interpersonal ramifications for those people, far stronger than it does for theists whose houses of worship are not life-encompassing.

Brent had a more profound hypothesis, which I’ll call “The Humor Theory of Atheism” (or HTA, for short). It may be easier, he said, for Catholics and Jews to “slide from being devout/observant” into atheism because both those groups have a tradition of comedy and humor. He noted that his family often mocked and satirized one another. That certainly was also true in my house, where it was difficult to survive a meal if you didn’t have a healthy streak of wiseguy, as well as a strong stomach.

We’re not talking about redneck guffaws here. Although Brent didn’t specifically say this, I think he meant that humor was used in his home as it was in mine, as a kind of intellectual challenge. You had to be alert, you had to be quick, and you had to be clever. Even the most innocent dinner-table pronouncements were always scrutinized for maximum comic effect. In my kitchen, we sat there shoveling my mother’s inedible food as we listened carefully to what one another said. All the while, our minds worked overtime to find an absurd connection, a weird association, a hilarious logical meander, or just a perfectly appropriate goofy face. We always knew that whatever we said was going to be examined, and we likewise dissected the statements of the others. We were under the impression that we were merely making jokes, but really, we were thinking critically.

Brent also pointed out that both Catholics and Jews tend to be found mostly in urban environments, places that are “edgy, irreverent, and even blasphemous.” Big cities are incubators for skepticism, particularly of the sardonically witty variety. What I learned to do at home, I did everywhere I went; and I’m guessing, from our short acquaintance, that he did, too.

Most of the funniest people I know are freethinkers, regardless of whether or not they’re out-and-out heathens. The kind of humor I’ve described is definitely not limited to only Catholics and Jews. But perhaps it comes a little more naturally for them because of their long traditions of derision, sarcasm, and even self-deprecation. In any case, whoever its practitioners are, humor is often an entry into critical thinking. Does that always result in atheism? Obviously, not. But without the ability and the desire to think critically, it may be impossible to break the mental chains forged by childhood indoctrination.

This is still a thesis in progress. So I’m asking: Do you agree or disagree with the following propositions?
(1) People raised as Catholics or Jews generally have an easier time acknowledging their freedom from faith than do those brought up in many other traditions.
(2) Humor is a very effective pathway to atheism.

Any (critical) thoughts?

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29 Responses to “The Humor Theory of Atheism: Laugh Your Way to Godlessness”

  1. 1. I believe that these two traditions lend themselves well to freethought, but for different reasons. First, one would be considered a radical Jew just to be at the same level as a typical protestant. Second, the Catholic Church is an infinitely more profitable affair that any Jewish religious authority. So denial that it is a scam is made that much more difficult.

    2. I am also forced to acknowledge that no Protestant was ever funny.

  2. I think you hit on something with the urban environment. You find Catholics and Jews mostly in higher population, metro areas. You know what else you find in those areas? Greater diversity and closer proximity to others. I think hearing one thing and witnessing another every day, day after day, makes one skeptical or at least having to rationalize more, so the belief system can’t be so strict and regimented.

    Also, the Catholics have an out via confession. That’s like, obey the rules BUT if you fuck up, go in the little booth and tell the priest and he’ll give you some task that’ll be your punishment and then your slate is wiped clean. Protestants don’t have that.

    The humor hypothesis is interesting, but that might go back to the less structured thing, prompted by or at least encouraged by the urban issue. What humor can you have when you’ve got strict rules and assertions which, being insulated, you have nothing to challenge them and no way to wipe your slate clean should you fuck up? I’m going to guess there might be humor, but it’s a very private and nervous type. The kind where you lean in and look side to side at who’s around before engaging in, and only with trusted individuals.

  3. the chaplain said

    no Protestant was ever funny

    Protestants are hilarious. But they don’t intend to be.

  4. Sarge said

    #1 Don’t really know, but is seems that the humor one often sees from these folks is a reaction to the absurdities foisted on them in the name of community. Or an escape from some pain visited on them by the dissonance which they experience between the “ideal” and “reality” of their life?

    #2 It is, I believe.
    In Christian religion humor seems to be very suspect, and must be kept under tight control both internally and externally.
    Cetain subjects are quite taboo when it comes to humor, it seems.
    Personally, I think that the thought is, if you find “B” humerous, then the next thing to be twitted might be something “sacred” by the time we get to “T”, so it must be discouraged.
    Enjoyment and laughter is meant for “heaven”, so I’m told.
    This suspicion I’ve heard vocalised by the old saw, “Laugh in the morning, you’ll be crying by evening”.

    I’ve noticed that a lot of people who say that do their best, then, to see that this prophecy is fulfilled.

  5. Professor said

    Humor is irreverent by nature. That does not NECESSARILY mean that its light-hearted detachment will spill over into doubt about faith (belief-despite-evidence), but the correlation would not be at all surprising. However, nothing is that simple. Many protestant preachers are very funny, even intentionally. Also, to my constant amazement and against the general averages, there are many Mensans and careful philosophers or scientists believe in their imaginary friends. What is religion giving them that we (secular community) are not providing?

  6. Humor is irreverent by nature

    I’m not convinced.

    What is religion giving them that we (secular community) are not providing?

    Would you ask that of alcoholics or other types of addicts? Are their failings our failings as well? No, if people have a need for such indulgences, it’s not other’s responsibility for it, nor, do I believe, other’s responsibility to come up with and/or provide alternatives to satiate those desires to indulge.

  7. Des:
    I believe that these two traditions lend themselves well to freethought, but for different reasons.
    You’ve pointed out a couple of notable institutional differences. But thinking only of the dynamics in the child’s household and how they relate to the intellectual/emotional life of that child, I’m not convinced that those differences matter much. In stereotypical (and when did that useful word “stereotypical” become an automatic pejorative?) Catholic and Jewish homes, even though the father may make a pretense of being in control, the family unit is matriarchal, and forgiving of mild transgressions, (That may be why the Virgin Mary is the ultimate Jewish mother, someone to appeal to when you’re scared to go directly to Pop.) A kid’s greatest loyalty is supposed to be to his or her family, family, family. “Brightness” is a desirable quality in children, encouraged and even boasted about. Dinner times are arenas for discussion, sometimes even “debates.” Communication of ideas is strongly supported, although some notions may be derisively shouted down.

    In fact, even in the purely religious sphere, both Catholicism and Judaism promote endless argumentation. Think about it: “Jesuitical” = “rabbinical.”

    I am also forced to acknowledge that no Protestant was ever funny.
    What about Sarah Palin?

    Philly:
    Yeah, the urban environment is definitely conducive to skepticism for all the reasons you mentioned. I think that living in close proximity to a diverse population forces a person to compare and contrast constantly. It so happens that Compare and Contrast is one of the key “Thinking Skills” that are allegedly taught in public elementary schools today. Comparing/contrasting can be a mind-expanding exercise; in a way, it’s one of the cornerstones of both humor and godlessness.

    I’m not surprised that when I think about atheists and/or comedians I know, almost every one of them came from a big city. Of all the great free-thinking humorists who spring immediately to mind, Mark Twain is the only one who didn’t spend his childhood in or near a thriving metropolis. But he hauled ass as soon as he could.

    Chappy:
    Protestants are hilarious. But they don’t intend to be.
    Unintentional humor only counts in the Republican Party, not in the HTA.

    Sarge:
    Religions in general seem to frown on laughter, unless it’s at the expense of infidels who are being conquered by true believers. I’ll paraphrase a question I posed a few posts back:

    I can’t think of a single instance in the bible of people using their “god-given” brains to laugh at a clever, non-vengeful, joke or witticism. Can you?

  8. BrentH said

    Another thought about this occured to me. Catholic and Jews, in my opinion, have more experience dealing with strong outspoken women. The Jewish mother stereotype doesn’t need to be explained. And I know Catholicism is probably one of the most sexist institutions ever created. But the whole cult of Mary in Catholicism undermines the central role of Jesus.

    My Mom was and still is a strong force in our family (yeah, she wears the pants). The nuns that ran my elementary school here in Lexington were all of German descent from Cincinnati. I’m still convinced their training manual was written by former SS officer. Everybody knew the nuns ran the school and the parish. The pastor was merely a figurehead and afraid of those nuns (Hmm? – he was later busted for child sex abuse).

    I think the tradition of strong women in Judaism and Catholicism undermines paternal authority. That may make it easier to slip into atheism. Of course it may also be the source of all the sexual hang-ups some Jews and Catholics experience as adults. Protestantism, on the other hand, seems much more paternalistic to me. Mormons are off the chart.

  9. Prof:
    Humor is irreverent by nature.
    I concur with Philly. I’m not convinced, either. Some humor is extremely reverent, like the kind that pokes fun at “The Other.” Reverent humor can reflect xenophobia, racism, sexism, or any other kind of tribal thinking. That’s most definitely not irreverent.

    Also, to my constant amazement and against the general averages, there are many Mensans and careful philosophers or scientists believe in their imaginary friends.
    That’s because you have a narrow idea of what atheists are and aren’t.
    By the way: What are these “general averages”? (And is there such a thing as a “non-general average”?)

    Philly:
    I’m not convinced.
    Hey, you borrowed my catchphrase. (Of course, I stole it from Ug, the first atheist caveman.) Maybe you should give serious thought to designing a logo for that, and we could put it on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and beer cozies.

  10. BrentH said

    Wow! I need to refresh my screen more often. You beat me to many of the same thoughts about the influence of women in Catholicism and Judaism.

  11. Brent:
    My Mom was and still is a strong force in our family (yeah, she wears the pants).
    My mother was more than a foot shorter than my father, but she figuratively kicked his ass every single day.

    When I was a kid, if my group of almost exclusively Jewish friends needed to get a parental OK to do something, we always said, “Ask your mother.” Fathers’ permissions didn’t count.

  12. Brent:
    You beat me to many of the same thoughts about the influence of women in Catholicism and Judaism.
    Well, anything worth saying is worth saying twice. Anyway, I didn’t think about Nun Power. Perhaps the BP oil gusher could be fixed by sending a group of nuns with rulers to whack its knuckles into obedience.

  13. I think a classy logo would involve a shot of Michelangelo’s David. His brows are furrowed and from a 3/4 view, with proper lighting, I think it conveys a “I’m not convinced” sentiment. He was an atheist, or so I hear, who snuck secret images in his paintings to fuck with the pope, so that’s another reason to use him.

  14. mutzali said

    I grew up the middle child of 7 in a Catholic family. We would say the rosary pretty much nightly, kneeling in a circle, except my Mom got to sit on the couch when she was pregnant again. She was the most liberated woman I know.

    Anyhow, we were instilled with the idea of the “informed conscience”–the idea that whatever the nuns told us in school, our best guide was always our own conscience. I think that concept was instrumental in my ability to shed the nonsensical contradictions, and ultimately the whole church. Only one of the seven of us still attends church, and he’s now a Quaker.

    My Dad was raised by Italian Catholic immigrant parents. The last time he set foot in a church was for my Mom’s funeral in 1995, and he made damn sure his memorial services would not involve any church.

  15. Postman said

    Larry: “I can’t think of a single instance in the bible of people using their “god-given” brains to laugh at a clever, non-vengeful, joke or witticism. Can you?”

    Oh, come one, Larry. What about “Go up, thou bald head,”? That’s a real corker and I’ll bet those 42 kids laughed joyfully… right up until the bears ate ’em.

  16. Philly:
    OK. Get to work on that. If you could include a hidden image of a brainstem, all the better.

    Mutzali:
    “Informed conscience” sounds pretty goddamned liberated. Some religionists might say that it also sounds like the devil’s road to hell. I like it.

    Postie:
    I’ll bet those 42 kids laughed joyfully… right up until the bears ate ‘em.
    Yes, and then the bears traded wisecracks. “Does this Hebrew kid taste funny to you?”

  17. Postman said

    You’ll be here all week, eh? Tip the waiters, right?

  18. BrentH said

    In fact, even in the purely religious sphere, both Catholicism and Judaism promote endless argumentation. Think about it: “Jesuitical” = “rabbinical.”

    Larry:
    You may not know if you didn’t go to Hebrew school. Did the Rabbis teach arguments for God by first teaching and picking apart arguments against God? When I was in Catholic high school, the principle of first knowing and then dismantling the counterarguments on God or some moral issue was a big part of religion classes. In retrospect, many of the methods of dismantling atheism fell flat. They relied on “Jesuitical” debate trickery that harped on subtleties and semantics. That left me preprimed with some solid arguments against God. Protestantism seems to rely more on the emotional experience of the Holy Dad. It’s hard to argue with, “I like it, because it make sme feel good!”

  19. Postie:
    “Hmmm. These Jewish kids never suspected that trouble was a bruin.”
    “Give a bear a child, and she’ll eat for an hour. Teach a bear to catch 42 children, and she’ll get a mention in the bible.”

    So whattaya expect? It’s a well-known fact that bears are terrible comedians.

    Brent:
    Is this better: Jesuitical = Talmudic. Now’s a good time for you to learn about pilpul.

    You’re definitely right about the ultimate Protestant rationale for god-belief. “You’ve gotta have faith, that’s all there is to it.” End of discussion.

  20. mutzali said

    The “informed conscience” is a tool I still use today, without the rest of the Catholic baggage. It was first brought up by Pope Pius IX, in the 1860s, and reintroduced by Pope John XXIII, the last pope to attempt that heretical “ecumenical” stuff. (Bill Donohue would fire a pope who tried that now…)

    In 1968, in the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“On Human Life”), Pope Paul VI even said couples should use an informed conscience to make their own personal birth control decisions! (What a radical!) So when I got married (as a still devout Catholic) in the early 70s, I took the pill with absolutely no guilty feelings. (And my Mom took me down to Planned Parenthood and said she’d kill me if I got pregnant before I finished college!)

  21. Mutzali:
    Pope Paul VI even said couples should use an informed conscience to make their own personal birth control decisions!
    My first wife was brought up Catholic, and I remember her mother telling us something along those lines. But she quickly added, “I’m not sure he’s right.”

    (And my Mom took me down to Planned Parenthood and said she’d kill me if I got pregnant before I finished college!)
    But not, I assume, if you were carrying God’s only son.
    Hey, maybe that’s why Catholics are pro-forced-maternity. You can never tell when you might be aborting the Second Coming.

  22. First of all, I think skepticism and logic are inate, not learned or acquired in upbringing. I saw that first hand with my older daughter, who at age 3, questioned religions and beliefs in a god, and could never even be convinced that there was a Santa Claus.

    1. My opinion is that it is a more rural vs. metropolitan issue than religious upbringing. Small town Protestant households have strong maternal influences similar to Jewish households. Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant – it is simply much more difficult for someone outside a metropolitan area to publicly expose that religious skepticism because there are few, if any, other people around him who share and “get” that skepticism. As a result they are ostracized and either flee to cities where they find larger numbers of similar people, or they feign “struggling” or just keep silent to maintain peace within their small community or social circles. A rural resident skeptic can find herself a lone wolfe, often at risk of losing friends, relatives, and even customers if she has a business. It takes a brave skeptic to be public in a rural area. That is why she agonizes. The Internet with its social networking has now changed some of that behavior.

    2. To a skeptic, religion is humorous, but I don’t think intelligent humor necessarily takes one to atheism.

  23. Catch:
    Welcome to my blog.

    I think you’re right that for some people, a proclivity toward skepticism is innate. However, it has to be encouraged if it’s really going to blossom into critical thinking.

    On the other hand, critical thinking can be taught, although not everyone who allegedly learns it can do it. There has been a push recently in some educational circles to include critical thinking in curricula even as early as grade school. The teaching profession, which dotes on buzzwords, calls it “metacognition,” knowing about knowing. Unfortunately, teachers are drawn from, and are a reflection of, the American public, so some of them — maybe even a lot — are incapable of thinking critically themselves.

    I think you’re right about urban versus rural, but I do think that a family’s traditions play a large part in the raising of kids. So some rural households do maintain, or even grow, a metropolitan mentality. And some big-city households are as countrified as the Beverly Hillbillies. Catholics and Jews, partially because of their religious practices, have learned — over centuries — to focus on the family. Whereas many Protestant Evangelical groups, like Focus on the Family, have taught their congregants to focus on the church.

    I agree that intelligent humor doesn’t necessarily take one to atheism, or even to critical thinking. That’s why I wrote “often,” not “always.” But I suspect you’ll agree that a sense of humor removes some of the roadblocks for getting there.

  24. I think that critical thinking alone takes one to atheism. It is precisely because religion is without logic or proof that the critical thinker finds humor there, just as he finds humor in all things illogical.

    By moving to the Bible Belt, you are most likely being exposed to the most radical of Protestant religions where the church greatly influences family and social life. I think that magnitude of influence is limited to a few of the southern U.S. states. I spent several years in Alabama and have seen it first hand. The Protestant churches do not have nearly the same “focus on the church” in other rural areas of the U.S.

    My experience with people who were “taught” critical thinking is that because they are instructed to follow a series of “tests”, they over-analyze data and very often come to incorrect conclusions.

    BTW: I’ve been reading you for some time since you popped up at Going Like Sixty’s blog.

  25. Catch:
    I’m not convinced that critical thinking always takes a person to atheism, but it at least teaches him or her a way to think about bald assertions not backed up by evidence. Also: I think we’ve gotten into a chicken-or-egg thing here. Which comes first: humor or skepticism? I’m not sure there’s a definite order that operates in all cases. (As far as the actual chicken and egg, I’d argue that, evolutionarily, the egg must have come first.)

    By moving to the Bible Belt, you are most likely being exposed to the most radical of Protestant religions where the church greatly influences family and social life. I think that magnitude of influence is limited to a few of the southern U.S. states.
    You ain’t just whistling Dixie.

    You’re definitely right about many people who are “taught” Critical Thinking (with capitals). They still don’t wind up thinking critically. But it may be possible for gifted teachers to approach the subject in a way that’s more practical and relevant to their students’ lives. Right now, as you pointed out, it’s often presented as exercises or a series of “tests.” But, obviously, critical thinking is not reducible to a step-by-step process; it’s a way of looking at the world.

    I’ve been reading you for some time since you popped up at Going Like Sixty’s blog.
    Well, I’m glad you’ve decided to contribute to the discussions here because you seem like a … yay! … critical thinker. Since all of us (myself definitely included) can lapse into dumbth from time to time, I’m always happy to have the balance of commenters be ready to challenge statements that are intellectually fuzzy. If we can’t justify and defend our claims here among friends, how are we going to succeed against our foes in the Culture Wars?

  26. Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.

  27. Patty:
    LOL. You do an excellent impression of a religious fanatic.

  28. The third message from heaven…

    If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.

  29. The third album from Iron Maiden…

    Woe to you, oh earth and sea
    For the Devil sends the beast with wrath
    Because he knows the time is short
    Let him who hath understanding
    Reckon the number of the beast
    For it is a human number
    Its number is six hundred and sixty six

    I left alone, my mind was blank, I needed time to think
    To get the memories from my mind
    What did I see? Can I believe that what I saw
    That night was real and not just fantasy?

    Just what I saw in my old dreams
    Were they reflections of my warped mind staring back at me
    ‘Cause in my dreams, it’s always there
    The evil face that twists my mind and brings me to despair

    Night was black, was no use holding back
    ‘Cause I just had to see, was someone watching me?
    In the mist, dark figures move and twist
    Was all this for real or just some kind of Hell?

    6 6 6, the number of the beast
    Hell and fire was spawned to be released

    Torches blazed and sacred chants were praised
    As they start to cry, hands held to the sky
    In the night, the fires are burning bright
    The ritual has begun, Satan’s work is done

    6 6 6, the number of the beast
    Sacrifice is going on tonight

    This can’t go on, I must inform the law
    Can this still be real, or just some crazy dream?
    But I feel drawn towards the chanting hordes
    Seem to mesmerize, can’t avoid their eyes

    6 6 6, the number of the beast
    6 6 6, the one for you and me

    I’m coming back, I will return
    And I’ll possess your body, and I’ll make you burn
    I have the fire, I have the force
    I have the power to make my evil take its course

    Video

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