Comedy of Atheism
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The Comedy of Atheism

I have never been to an atheist church, but I can imagine that I would have a good time. Their services seem upbeat and positive, and they are full of songs, socializing, and more often than not, comedy.

For me, the most interesting part about these atheist churches is not the irony or contradiction of having an “atheist church” – which most atheists reject – the most interesting part is the fact that the most vocal proponents of these churches are not scientists or philosophers as we have come to expect, they are comedians.

Take, for example, The Sunday Assembly in London, England. This is an atheist church that was started by two comedians, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, who were looking for a place where like-minded people (ie. atheists) could gather together to learn how to “help often, live better and wonder more,” according to the church’s central tenets.

It makes sense that comedians would be at the forefront of any social gathering. Comedians are great orators who are comfortable in front of a crowd and trained to keep people’s attention. But, that does not answer the question why comedians are at the forefront of an atheist social gathering, and why so many famous comedians – including George Carlin, Tim Minchin, Ricky Gervais, Patton Oswalt, Seth McFarlane, Bill Maher, Joe Rogan, Larry David – are unabashedly atheistic. Does comedy lend itself to atheism, or atheism to comedy?

I think the answer is a little bit of both. The job of a comedian is to make light of our unconscious habits and irrational beliefs in order to shake us out of our mundane or irrational conventions. They are able to do this because they often employ a radical skepticism to everything in life. This radical skepticism allows them to openly question everything and analyze anything in life without boundary – nothing is sacred, including God and religion. Comedians serve the Socratic function of making us ask ‘why this instead of that?’ Most of the time we don’t have a good answer to this question and it is for this reason that comedians make it their business to ask this exact question.

By asking the simple question ‘why’, comedians bring to light and at the same time make light of humanity’s idiosyncrasies, which is essentially what comedy is: poking fun at of the incongruities of life. When something violates or is incongruous with our expectations of what should be the case, we either find it confusing, offensive, or funny, and sometimes all three.

Let me give one quick example to show how the incongruity of life works itself out in the practice of comedy. The 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant illustrates the incongruity of humour with this story:

An Indian at the table of an Englishman in Surat, when he saw a bottle of ale opened and all the beer turned into froth and overflowing, testified his great astonishment with many exclamations. When the Englishman asked him, ‘What is there in this to astonish you so much?’ he answered, ‘I am not at all astonished that it should flow out, but I do wonder how you ever got it in.’

This story is humorous, Kant says, “not because we deem ourselves cleverer than this ignorant man, or because of anything in it that we note as satisfactory to the understanding, but because our expectation was strained (for a time) and then was suddenly dissipated into nothing.” In other words, the story was humorous because the ending was incongruous with the beginning and was able to make light of our initial expectations by dissipating the tension into nothing.

Now, I think a more recent example will help to reveal why this idea of comedic incongruity is often closely tied to atheism. Woody Allen, the ever-witty writer-director, once said, “Not only is there no god, but try getting a plumber on weekends.” Here, Woody Allen is playing on the idea that when you need God the most, he is nowhere to be found – like a plumber on the weekends. The idea of not receiving help from God in a time of crisis is not particularly funny, but whenever that idea is unexpectedly coupled with an absentee plumber, it becomes quite funny. But it also becomes more than that; it becomes a polemic against the very idea of God. If we think that it is absurd not to be able to get a plumber on the weekend in a time of crisis, then we are encouraged to think it is equally absurd to believe in a God who does not show up in a time of crisis. The consequence of the joke is obvious: God, like the absentee plumber, becomes incongruous with practical solutions to real life problems. God becomes an absurd and impractical idea that, to use the words of Immanuel Kant, dissipates into nothing.

Thus, it is easy to see how comedy lends itself to atheism. If one does even a cursory exploration into human life they will easily find many things about our understanding of God and religion that appear to be incongruous. To believe that we are able to talk to and receive help from an invisible being in the sky is too much for many people to believe; especially when they have never seen or touched this God for themselves.

However, in addition to comedy lending itself to atheism, atheism also lends itself to comedy. Comedy is often used as a tool of atheism to ridicule or scorn people who believe incongruous things when they apparently should not. Richard Dawkins, for example, told Michael Schulman in a New Yorker article on the comedian-songwriter-atheist Tim Minchin, “He does ridicule very well, and ridicule is one of the weapons that we need to use against soft headedness.” Now, even though ridicule may be morally reprehensible (René Descartes, for example, calls scorn a form of hatred), I don’t want to be too hard on Dawkins because we all do it in varying degrees. I mean, who doesn’t love a good joke about Scientology?

The point is that comedy is often used as an evangelistic tool for atheists to point out the incongruities of religion and God. But, the question remains, is Christianity really incongruous with reality? As a Christian, I want to humbly argue that Christianity is far from incongruous. I see Christianity – Jesus to be more specific – as the key that unlocks the true meaning of reality. However, I do not think that comedians and atheists are bothered by Christianity because it is incongruous with reality, I think they are bothered by Christianity because it is incongruous with our expectations of reality.

Humanity could not have predicted Christianity. Christianity isn’t illogical, but it also isn’t what you would expect. There is nothing necessary about God creating or coming into the world. It was all an act of will, an act of love. To a world that expects the logical outworking of natural laws instead of personal agency, this religion of Christianity is no doubt absurd.

In his well-known book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton argues this very point. He says that Christianity is inherently paradoxical and at odds with our expectation of reality. The opening lines to the chapter “The Paradoxes of Christianity” read:

“The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians.”

Comedians and atheists are some of the best logicians in the world, but it is this logic that becomes a hindrance to the atheist accepting the paradoxical truth of Christianity. For all its logical consistency, atheism is logically inconsistent when it comes to the person of Jesus. There is no natural category for someone like Jesus. Jesus is logically incongruous with our expectations of reality. And herein lies the difference between the Christian and the atheist: one accepts the possibility of a logically incongruous truth and the other does not.

Flickr photo (cc) by  hallomarvin

Kona