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?