The new gang of hyper-confident male atheists wants you to laugh at religion

The new gang of hyper-confident male atheists wants you to laugh at religion
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Thousands of academics are gathering in Regina for the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, beginning Saturday. They will present papers on everything from the new cultural dynamic of apologism to why Jezebel in the Hebrew Bible talks like a man. In its Oh, The Humanities! series, the National Post showcases some of the most interesting research.

The New Atheists were never a particularly funny bunch.

They were either, like Richard Dawkins, chippy materialists with a quasi-religious faith that science can offer a complete answer to any mystery worth contemplating. Or they were, like Christopher Hitchens, swaggering verbal stylists whose cleverness put a charming gloss on sentiments about believers that would otherwise sound like hate speech.

Christopher Hitchens and his wife, Carol Blue.

But there is another gang of hyper-confident male atheists for whom knee-slapping humour is front and centre in their atheist proselytizing, far more than science or intellectual debate.

These are the Comic Atheists, people like TV host Bill Maher, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, and the standup comics Ricky Gervais and Marc Maron, all of whom are part of a broader movement to “destabilize and eliminate religion from the public sphere,” according to research presented at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

As it often does on the schoolyard, their cruel mockery conceals an insecurity, and it offers a pop cultural case study on the ancient human tendency to demonize and vilify people who think differently.

I sometimes wish God was real so he could drown us all. Have a great day.

In his paper on these comedians, Chris Miller, a PhD student in religious studies at the University of Waterloo, uses the term “boundary maintenance” to describe a sort of social therapy by which human communities reassure themselves about their own beliefs by “describing another group’s world in the language of one’s own.” Thus are religious people painted not as the normal adherents of ancient traditions, but as “laughable and confused at best” and “manipulative or harmful at worst,” Miller said.

He references the sociological theory of Thomas Luckmann and Peter Berger that when human groups are threatened, they engage in either “nihilation” of the other group, by portraying them as barbaric or sub-human, or in softer “therapeutic” strategies to explain why this other group continues to exist.

Sometimes these comedians might simply be trying to vex or taunt religious people, Miller said. Sometimes they are taking religious groups to task for their many failures. Sometimes they are simply making fun of weird people (so perceived) for sport, the way millennials often serve as the butt of jokes for older people. But mostly these comics are helping their fellow atheists feel better about themselves, Miller argues, not by reassuring them that their own beliefs are correct, but by mocking those who think differently.

I feel like an idiot now…I only sent money.

As the theory goes, “people need to constantly confirm their beliefs, whatever they may happen to be,” Miller said.

“These and other comedians defend their particular worldview by negating or critiquing the worldview of others,” Miller said. “When atheists make fun of religious people, they are therefore pointing out what they believe ‘should’ be seen as normal.”

He gave the example of atheist comedians describing religion as something they used to believe in before they “grew up.”

“People who continue to believe are therefore rendered childish or foolish,” he said. “Even if a comedian doesn’t intend to attack a religious group, when they make that group the subject of a joke, they are portraying them in a very specific light.

David Feltmate, a sociologist of religion at Auburn University at Montgomery, who is chairing the panel at which Miller’s paper will be presented, said this type of humour relies on what he calls “ignorant familiarity,” the idea that people think they are familiar with matters about which they are woefully ignorant.

Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane and The Simpsons creator Matt Groening at a 2008 FOX party in Santa Monica. FOX via AP

Other people’s religion is a classic example of this. In an interview, Feltmate described the evolution of religious humour in the cartoon Family Guy, which grew ever more cruel and nasty as creator Seth MacFarlane emerged as a public atheist.

He contrasts this to The Simpsons, which is gentler to religion and accepts that it can be a force for good in people’s lives. Feltmate, whose book Drawn to the Gods describes these themes in detail, said this is a reflection of diverse influences in the writers room, notably Jews and lapsed Catholics.

So, for example, Ned Flanders, the politically active evangelical who is preoccupied with sex, family structure, and upright moral living is a frequent target of mockery, but he does well by it, and only gets his comeuppance when he tries to foist his beliefs on other people.

That kind of humour requires a familiarity with religion that seems lacking in the Comic Atheists. This is arguably the key to their success.

As Feltmate put it: “When enough people share an ignorant familiarity, they can go ahead and act collectively on their ignorance, without being checked, or having to suffer serious consequences for their prejudice.”


Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. Fox via AP

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