Sunday Sacrilege: The Joke

There’s a time to take religion seriously, and a time to laugh at it. Sometimes we have to do both at the same time.

When you read the works of apologists for religion, there’s a common theme: they are all very serious. Religion is important. Faith is about a relationship with the greatest being in the universe. We need God to find purpose in our lives. Religion is about community and bringing people together. Rituals are tools to cope with the great events in life, from birth to death.

It’s all true, of course, in the sense that believers really do believe that their God matters, and sometimes the greatest kindness we godless give to them is that we take them seriously and argue seriously about the meaning of their beliefs. We engage them on their chosen turf and tell them they’re wrong, and here’s the logic of atheism, and here are the failings of religious belief, and here’s why uncritical, irrational thinking hurts our culture…and we have to do that, because this is a serious debate about how the universe actually works and how society should accommodate myth and superstition and common delusions.

But the other side of the story is that, boy, religions sure promote some goofy stuff that is so ridiculous it doesn’t even make convincing comedy. The absurdity is so ripe that we often pass over it — they must know how silly that belief is, right? They don’t really hold that bizarre position — this is supposed to be a serious discussion. But they do. And we should not ignore the power of laughter.

In 2009, when people were deeply concerned about the swine flu pandemic, a flock of fifty rabbis took to the air and flew around Israel. As their plane patrolled the borders, these very serious men in their distinguished beards and yamulkes and somber clothing shouted invocations to Adonai and read their holy books and blew on magic horns to stop a virus. It was madness. It was ridiculous. It was utterly ineffectual.

There are multiple ways to respond to such absurdity. Do the science. Measure infection rates before and after the shofar-blowing. Do many trials. Analyze the statistics. Publish the results in an epidemiology journal. Good luck with that; it’s important to actually test the claims, but also very hard to do, and also unlikely to meet any credible standards for publication (the use of shofars to control viruses is not an active controversy in the biomedical community). It’s also going to take time, money, and effort to test properly. If it were done well, it might be useful in persuading some rational rabbis in the future that chanting and howling in the sky is not a smart strategy. It’s also going to be ignored by the majority of rabbis who do not read the scientific literature and simply don’t care about the data, and most will rationalize their way out of the logical rebuke: we’re not dying of swine flu now, so see? It worked!

There’s another way. Show the video of the crazy rabbis trying to go medieval on a virus from a modern airplane, and let people laugh. Now, instead of having to teach your audience the statistical methods of epidemiology in order to get your point across, all you have to do is ask whether they really want to be associated with that carnival of lunacy. Easy! Cheap! And it builds on a basic principle of human nature: people don’t want to be ridiculed. That’s a far more potent crowbar to wrench people apart from their preconceptions than statistics.

Have no illusions: neither approach is universally effective, and neither will have a tremendous success rate. But then, as far as I know no one has ever done a controlled study of shofar effectiveness, so that one isn’t even an option. And all it takes is for a few people to be embarrassed at their flying rabbis who then go ask their doctors what the best way to avoid getting the flu is to have made a net gain.

Here’s another example of a religious absurdity: Hojatoleslam Kazem Seddiqi of Iran announced that women dressing immodestly cause earthquakes, and even used the fear of divine wrath to threaten Iranian people with death “under the rubble” if they didn’t get on board with the theocratic policy of oppressing women. It’s laughable on the face of it; how would such a phenomenon work, where is the evidence, isn’t it obvious that local mores about dress differ from place to place and aren’t correlated with earthquake frequency?

Once again, there are different ways to respond to these claims. One is to calmly and rationally point out the qualitative evidence and even go through the historical record and do a detailed analysis: isn’t it rather obvious that the earthquake-prone areas of repressive Iran, where the women are covered up heavily, seems to be rather more prone to seismic wrath than, say, the beaches of the French Riviera, where the women may be wearing nothing at all? But let’s be honest: it’s a bloodless approach that doesn’t excite the imagination, effective as it may be, and we could drone on and on for ages and no one will notice. As scientifically strong as a message may be, it doesn’t matter if it isn’t heard.

Jen McCreight did something different: she called for a boobquake, suggesting that women dress immodestly (by Iranian cleric standards) on a specific day, and invite God to smite the planet with earthquakes…a suggestion that would only be made in confidence that Seddiqi’s claim was baseless. And it was a phenomenon. Boobquake was picked up by news media around the world, got millions to pay attention, and effectively highlighted the silliness of a religious claim. It was media-savvy and human-psychology-savvy — it used humor, sex, and fun to make a serious point interesting, and led people to look at the science of earthquakes. Did it make hordes of Muslims convert to atheism? Of course not. But it did make an Islamic authority look a bit more ridiculous in the eyes of the world.

Religion has at least two weaknesses. One is that it is empirically false, and all of its specific claims are either pointless and unverifiable, or have been falsified. Another, though, that we neglect at a cost of diminished effectiveness, is that it’s hilarious. It’s a prime target for exposure of religious folly; it’s the soft, ticklish underbelly of faith and we need more people to exploit it.

Unfortunately, right now, I see the atheist community needlessly split between two poles. There are the softies who complain that believers don’t deserve ridicule, that hard truths and blunt speech and laughing at fervently held beliefs simply hardens hearts and drives people away, so we have to be sensitive and avoid confrontation; logic and gentle persuasion will win the day. Then there are the hard-edged ones (the current favored term for these is “dicks”) who point out that you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into, and that those fond beliefs are being used to hurt people, and must be strongly criticized and mocked. And that, really, religion is a clown circus, and asking us not to point and laugh is unnatural and dishonest.

Both sides are wrong, and both sides are right, and there sure aren’t many people standing at either extreme. You can reason some people out of indoctrination, and slow and patient instruction can win people over to atheism. I know some of them; they write to me and tell me that something I said actually led them to think through their position. But shock also works. Ultimately, people hold their religious beliefs for emotional reasons; deep down, fear and comfort, disgust and empathy are the tools religion uses to manipulate natural human desires. We would be idiots to shun emotional appeals, and it would also play into the ridiculous Spock stereotype of atheists as cold dead soulless people who substitute math for passion.

Sometimes you can reason people out of deeply held beliefs. But it helps if first you stir their discontent with those beliefs, if you wake them up to the fact that they look ridiculous…and that yes, there is a whole group of people who are laughing at them.

It’s another form of sacrilege, to make believers and belief the butt of the joke — and oh, they do hate that. It’s an entirely human response…so use it.