In a presentation made at this weekend’s Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, sociologist Katja Guenther explained that humor is an especially useful tool in the “New Atheism Movement”:
For example, many New Atheist Movement events include presentations from former religious leaders. One Pentecostal minister-turned-atheist [Jerry DeWitt] exhorts audiences to yell “Darwin!” at moments when a minister might ask the congregation to yell “Amen!” in a sermon. Some atheists reference the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (which says its members believe that life was created by an intelligent creature made of spaghetti noodles) to ridicule all religious belief.
“The movement seeks to make a mockery of religious believers and religious institutions by highlighting the absurdity of religious belief and the outrageousness of the actions of some religious believers,” Guenther said. “Humor for this particular social movement may be especially advantageous because… it offers a relatively non-threatening challenge to religion, while simultaneously causing people some discomfort and forcing them to rethink their religious views.”
While I haven’t seen the actual paper yet (though I’ve requested it), I don’t doubt the conclusion at all. When you think about people known for their atheism, comedians like George Carlin and Bill Maher are inevitably on the list alongside Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Part of the reason for that is that religion, on its surface, is downright ridiculous. When you look at it from the outside, it’s hard not to laugh at the beliefs. And we appreciate those who are able to point that out. Hell, just try explaining what Scientologists or Mormons believe while keeping a straight face.
Guenther also says humor helps us in more general ways:
- It creates an opportunity to build a sense of collective identity among diverse participants.
- It breaks the ice and relaxes people, which can be especially beneficial for newcomers.
- It is a central part of the movement’s identify, and to atheistic identity more generally.
“To be an atheist is to be funny,” Guenther wrote, and is used frequently to highlight atheistic beliefs and establish boundaries between insiders and outsiders.
Damn right it is. Humor isn’t just an afterthought for us; it’s an integral part of how we communicate our ideas. While religious leaders may toss in some jokes when explaining their theology, I’m hard-pressed to think of famous Christian leaders known primarily for their sense of humor.
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